I've long had an interest in psychology, particularly abnormal psychology. The mind is a fascinating thing, but it has far more spectacular effects when things go wrong. The same is true of crime thrillers, which are a lot more entertaining when things don't work out too well for the police. So a combination of abnormal psychology and crime thriller was always going to appeal to me.
Karen Taylor is a psychologist working on a paper on Dangerous Severe Personality Disorder, which she believes may cause people to commit violent crimes. As part of her research, she has returned to the Isle of Wight where she spent may happy family holidays as a child, to interview Spike Falconer. Spike is a local man, convicted of the murder of a family of tourists and sentenced to life imprisonment in the island's Parkhurst prison.
Karen has to confront her own memories, both of her childhood on the island and of more recent history. Trying to solve Spike's case, she is treated with suspicion by some of the islanders and with outright hostility by others. Only one member of the island's police is pleased to see her, as he thinks Karen can not only get Spike to admit his guilt for the murder he's been convicted of, but also several unsolved murders. The rest, however, are less welcoming and quick to make Karen a scapegoat when anything goes wrong.
I found ''No Escape'' to be a fascinating book, especially with my interest in psychology. I've not studied the subject for some time, so I can't be sure whether Dangerous Severe Personality Disorder is a genuine psychological condition or if it was fictional. Either way, the psychological background was detailed enough to make it all seem very reasonable and realistic.
N. J. Cooper is a writer who seems to enjoy life inside her characters' heads as much as she does out of it. Virtually every situation has an emotional or psychological undercurrent, whether it's an emotion as simple as fear or an indicator of some deeper psychological trauma. Unusually, she's also very visually descriptive at the same time, so there is a lot of colour and visual imagery, allowing the writer to visualise the scene as well as to feel it. Many writers offer one or the other, but it's rare to find a writer who allows the reader to map a mind and a location at once.
If there is one weakness here, it's in the characters themselves. A couple of characters appear briefly for no apparent reason, which left me wondering exactly what the point of them was. For the major characters, most of them have some interesting psychological quirks or something buried deep in their psyche that affects their actions. It seems that no-one in the story does anything for no reason at all, which was interesting, but didn't seem entirely realistic. Given that the basic psychological background for the story was generally well done, it did seem that this was stretching the point a little too far.
On the other hand, this does make things a little more interesting as it adds to the back-story and means that virtually everything is related to the plot and not a word is wasted. However, it does also mean that there isn't a great deal of room for levity. It's a decent enough story, but it's always very serious and even when the characters manage to break away from the business at hand and relax, events catch up with them and it's all serious once again.
In the end, though, the aspects of the story I was most fascinated with proved to be greater than the minor distractions that the negative points provided. The psychological aspects felt real, if a little overbearing at some points and even when events became a little too crowded for comfort. M. J. Cooper is a fine writer and has a decent enough insight into the human mind to add something a little extra to your average crime novel. It's a decent story and a slightly more interesting read than many in the genre and this makes it well worth a look, especially with prices as low as 96 pence at the Amazon Marketplace..
This is a slightly amended version of a review that has previously appeared under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Inspired by having already read a Cooper novel a few months ago, I picked up No Escape from the library last month. I've been getting into crime novels lately, though mainly American ones as I can't say I've been very taken by the British versions, and I'm pleased to say that Cooper is a top crime writer for our country (even though I don't think myself to be 'patriotic' at all these days!).
No Escape was published this year and falls within the crime genre. On the front of the book, the quote 'One of the most accomplished crime writers in the country' distinguishes Cooper as an author amidst the hundreds of others out there.
It doesn't matter whether you've read any of her work before as this novel needs no prior knowledge, but it's an added benefit if you're already acquainted with the main character, Karen Taylor. I think it's comforting when an author depicts a lead character that we can follow throughout each novel, and Cooper does it well enough so that both those familiar and unfamiliar with her can enjoy the books.
Karen Taylor is the main character, a forensic psychologist from the UK, whose death of her husband still taunts her. In No Escape, we see her in a new relationship with a surgeon as a sideline to the main plot.
The storyline involves Taylor travelling to the Isle Of Wight, where she spent time as a child, interviewing a man named Spike Falconer as part of her paper on an under-researched personality disorder. During Taylor's time on the island she visits the prison that is home to Falconer, a man accused of a cold-hearted and brutal killing spree of a picnicking family.
The death of the family is what we are first introduced to in the book, which is harsh and laid bare for us to imagine, drawing us in to continue reading. It's a good start, though I thought the pace then slowed quite considerably whilst Taylor conducts her interviews with Spike and goes about her life whilst she is on the island.
A DCI by the name of Charlie Trench approaches Taylor informally, and from this point the two of them dig into the case of the murdered picnickers, as well as several other killing possibly as the hands of Falconer.
The web of characters and incidents gradually mounts as Cooper introduces different names, places and strange goings-on into the mix. I thought there was a good balance between introducing newness and recapping what had already happened, so it was easy to read because you don't get confused or left behind not knowing what's going on.
There are good contrasts and comparisons made between psychology and biology via the conversations between Taylor and her medical boyfriend, which I found very interesting to read. The book doesn't just focus on one aspect, ie. Uncovering the thought processes and incidents that turned Spike into the killer everyone thinks he is. It's multifaceted, gives different perspectives and this makes it a novel requiring some thought.
It is also not a cut and dry plot. From the outset, it appears that way, but as you read on, the threads of uncertainty unravel. Albeit not at an alarming pace, but bits and pieces start to fit together as what were considered to be certainties are turned on their heads.
I thought the descriptive elements were very good; the image of the dingy house Taylor stays in, the murders committed, the personalities and outer shells of the characters are all depicted vividly, making it easy to formulate your own 'mental movie'.
There are good bonds made between the characters, and the emotive content is also strong enough to engage you and make you feel as if you know the characters and are able to identify with them to an extent.
I didn't, however, think the rationale behind the murderous plots was that strong. I also felt that the pace after the initial opening was a little slow, though this changed as the plot thickened.
There are twists, although I had already considered them as possibilities fairly early on the book. That said, the twist makes it an interesting read and goes to show that you shouldn't take anything for face value, that things are not always as they seem.
I thought the book had a good atmosphere to it, with a creepy hunchbacked man lurking around a dingy house and a seemingly psychotic killer who giggles when questioned about the innocent people he's accused of killing...
It's well written and worth a read, though I can't give it 5 stars because of the plot and rationale that I mentioned behind the actual killings.
RRP £6.99 325 pages £5.49 Amazon 2009