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Why are libraries constantly having book sales these days? Once upon a time I'm sure they had sales bi-annually or every quarter, but these days - much like the high street - the sales seem to be on constantly. This means bad things for my overcrowded bookshelves which this week became reluctant hosts to another small stash of ex-library books. 'The Surrogate' caught my eye because it seemed to promise my favourite kind of crime story: a psychological thriller.
== What's it about? ==
"After a loveless, abused childhood, Phil knows evil well, but nothing in his life has prepared him for this."
The incredibly dramatic blurb can be reduced to this basic premise: a serial killer is cutting out babies from the wombs of full-term pregnant women; DI Phil Brennan thinks this killer is seriously evil; criminal profiler, Marina Esposito, is called in to help and suggests that a childless woman may be involved.
However, reducing the drama is the last thing the publishers want to happen. This killer is "sickening", the "most depraved" killer Brennan has ever encountered and "a serial killer like no other". Well, gosh. Like the blurb, the storyline feels OTT and out to shock. Attacking pregnant women? Stealing their babies from the womb? The culprit is a horror show, more a boogeyman than a person. Some readers may find this insistence on sensationalism off-putting; I simply found it underwhelming.
== What's it like? ==
Perhaps surprisingly, despite the potential for gore, the murders themselves are described, during and after, in ways that successfully convey their horror but are not actually that graphic. I have quite a sensitive stomach but there was only one truly wince-inducing scene (perhaps ironically, NOT a murder) and I never had to put the book aside to compose myself. Indeed, the first death becomes almost dull: "Her lungs stopped inflating, her heart stopped beating. Her eyes closed for the final time." We get it. She died. Move on already.
The pace of the investigation is quick and there are plenty of twists and turns which help to make this quite a compelling read. Chapters are short, often only a few pages long, and end with gentle, effective cliffhangers. Chapters following the exploits of the investigating officers and Esposito are interspersed with italicised insights from the killer which emphasise how much he enjoys stalking and attacking women. This is perhaps an over-used strategy in the crime genre and there is no real novelty in its use here, but it is effective at building up tension.
The twists are largely predictable but that doesn't make them any less shocking or enjoyable. This is a book where it's probably best not to think too long or too hard about the plot though: the whole construction relies upon some big coincidences and the final twist is rather implausible, depending as it does upon a bit of a cheat.
For me the real disappointment was in the lack of psychological profiling. Esposito never actually gets round to writing her criminal profile and her contributions to the investigation mostly consist of standing in the crime scene explaining that the killer saw the women as simply carriers, husks, objects in his way. Admittedly, she does also point out that the police have the wrong guy nailed as the killer, but as no one listens to her that isn't particularly helpful. She also seems to be very attractive to lunatics, which is unfortunate to say the least and, in its regularity, slightly unconvincing.
Rather than being a psychological thriller, this is a police procedural with some insights into the mind of a killer. The police work is logical, the suspects are living cliches (the woman-beater and the adulterous husband) and there's the seemingly obligatory awkward relationship between two members of the investigative team. In short, despite Carver's best efforts to shock readers, there's nothing really that striking about the book. I found it easy to read, mildly compelling, slightly predictable and a bit too focused on the lives of the investigating team. Personally, I prefer to read about the crime-solving in crime stories; if I want romance I'll read a romance.
Tania Carver is actually a pseudonym for Martyn and Linda Waites, a husband and wife writing together. It appears to be a successful partnership as the writing doesn't feel at all disjointed in the way some team efforts can. (Hello Emlyn Rees, Josie Lloyd.)
This is Carver's debut novel and the first book in the Brennan/Esposito series, but, oddly, it feels like it must be the second. Brennan and Esposito already have a whole back-story, focused around one case in particular, the details of which unfold throughout this story. There's so much back-story that it almost feels like the book needs a prequel, but it all unfolds clearly enough as the plot develops.
More problematically, I found Esposito a rather annoying character. Her reasons for breaking up with Brennan are, frankly, daft (albeit entirely psychologically plausible) and the way she treats him and her live-in partner, Tony, is terrible. Her pregnancy seems to be little more than a plot device to make her a potential victim for the killer and I found the end of her story to be far too abrupt.
== Final thoughts ==
Of course, you don't have to like the characters to enjoy a story, and I did enjoy this, just not as much as I thought I might. Will I read the next book in the series? Yes - but largely because I purchased 'The Creeper' at the same time as 'The Surrogate'. Despite the shocking storyline and dramatic characters, this isn't a book that I found memorable or especially interesting and I doubt that I'd make a special effort to seek out the third in the series.
Although it didn't impress me much, this book was short listed for the 2010 Theakston's Prize and is now part of a growing series (four books published so far) featuring DI Phil Brennan and Marina Esposito. In fact, despite my minor quibbles, it is a fairly good example of the genre, it's just not the revolution the over-excited blurb promises.
You might enjoy this if:
- you enjoy a quick-paced police procedural;
- you enjoy crime stories which are as much about the lives of the detectives / personnel involved as they are about loving the crime;
- you like stories which focus on the killer's motivation as much as the evidence.
You might prefer to avoid this if:
- you are looking for a truly gory and forensically detailed crime story;
- you prefer crime fiction which focuses in depth on the psychology of the characters and in which the killer may be one of several characters;
- you aren't interested in starting a series of books and prefer to read genuine standalone books.
When Detective Inspector Philip Brennan is called to the scene of the brutal killing of two women, he knows he has entered the world of the most depraved killer he has ever encountered. For one of these women was heavily pregnant and after killing her friend, he then drugged the pregnant woman and brutally removed her unborn baby before killing her too.
Althought this isn't the first time Phil's team have came across this gruesome scenario: a pregnant woman's abdomen sliced open and the baby removed, this is actually the first time the baby hasn't been left dead at the scene. It would seem as this is now the third incident of this kind, that the killer is targetting pregnant women and honing the art of being able to actually remove the baby alive and intact. Because the baby is missing from the scene this time, they have high hopes that the baby may still be alive. Will this possibly mean the killer now has what they wanted or will the killings continue? Phil and his team cannot be certain and also have a baby to find who if still alive, may need urgent medical treatment.
The first suspect in the case is the woman's ex-boyfriend, who had been quite abusive towards her in their relationship and threatened to remove the baby himself if she would not seek an abortion. And when links begin to appear between him and the other murdered women, Phil and the team think they may have found their man, but the question remains what has happened to the baby? And also this man certainly would not have wanted a live baby after the threats he had made would he?
Nothing is clear and when the department decides to bring in criminal profiler Marina Esposito to help solve the case she delivers a bombshell, something which they had not considered: Marina believes there is a woman involved in the killing, a woman desperate for children.
For Phil, there are a lot of things not adding up and the case is a lot more complex than they initially thought. He must find who is responsible and prevent this happening again.
Meanwhile, there is someone hanging around outside ante-natal classes and spots someone leaving who could be the ultimate prize...
Having recently read and enjoyed another Tania Carver novel: The Creeper, I was looking forward to reading this, her first novel. Having read both books I would suggest that anyone interested should read The Surrogate before reading The Creeper. The reason being that Detective Inspector Phil Brennan and his team including profiler Marina also feature in The Creeper and whilst it is a different story altogether, knowledge of the characters of Phil and Marina is beneficial prior to reading The Creeper. I was a little lost in places when reading The Creeper in regards to their characters and if only I had read this book first it would have made much more sense.
The Surrogate is an impressive story, quite gory and sickening in places it is certainly not one for the squeamish, but the author manages to keep it intriguing by dedicating some chapters to the killer and their thoughts and actions. There are also a few twists and I didn't really know who was responsible and why until near the end. The author cleverly leads you to realise early on that something isn't quite right and a shocking secret, something sickening, abusive and scandalous is being held by someone, but by whom and what it is exactly will keep you guessing right through the story.
The professional and personal relationship between Phil and Marina also begins here and things are not easy. Reading about them here answered the questions I had when reading The Creeper, as you learn how and why things have happened which have an effect on both characters in the years to come.
I really enjoyed the character of Phil in particular, he has a depth and warmth which is often missing from many lead dectectives in crime and thriller novels.
The supporting characters were also interesting and every one I think has been well thought out and useful to the story. There are no insignificant characters or lengthy needless descriptions here I am pleased to say. Everything and everyone featured has a purpose in this story.
Although the killings are quite horrific and really don't bear thinking about, I was surprised and a little shocked to find I had some empathy for a character I really shouldn't have. This is because the characters are created and developed in such a way I think the reader is left with little choice other than to sympathise a tiny little bit.
The story moves forward at a steady pace and I found it quite hard to put this book down after the first few pages and finished it in two sittings. At 438 pages, The Surrogate is an average length thriller packed with intriguing characters and a gory storyline which has more than one red herring to prevent it from becoming predictable. The author has created characters the reader will care about, whether they are good or bad and I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Well written and a good plot with a few twists and interesting characters, I couldn't really ask for more.
A shocking double-murder scene greets Detective Inspector Philip Brennan when he is called to a flat in Colchester. Two women are viciously cut open and laying spreadeagled, one tied to the bed, one on the floor. The woman on the bed has had her stomach cut into and her unborn child is missing. But this is the third time Phil and his team have seen such an atrocity. Two other pregnant women have been killed in this way and their babies taken from them. No-one can imagine what sort of person would want to commit such evil acts. When psychologist Marina Esposito is brought in, Phil has to put aside his feelings about their shared past and get on with the job. But can they find the killer before another woman is targeted?