Thursday, February 20, 2014

Night, night

Since I read a lot of mystery fiction, I feel inured to most forms of violent death (let me emphasize -- in fiction; no one I've known has died from violence). Descriptions of wounds and rotting flesh don't really make me squeamish; the point of mysteries is not the victim but the solution, so I can mostly gloss over the details of the initial crime. But Mark Billingham's Sleepyhead (or is it Sleepy Head?) gave me big-time creeps. Because the victim isn't exactly dead ... she's worse than dead. She's locked in.

It wasn't until Alison Willets ended up not dead in the ICU that Detective Inspector Tom Thorne realized that she -- and the three young women who had previously died of mysterious strokes -- was a victim of a crime, of a killer who actually doesn't want to be a killer. Champagne Charlie incapacitates his randomly chosen victims with drugged Champagne, then he places enough pressure on their neck arteries to induce a debilitating stroke, resulting in a waking coma or locked-in syndrome. The brain works, but the body doesn't. Alison was Charlie's first success, and oh is he proud.

Thorne, a typical fictional "maverick" policeman -- prefers to work alone, operates on the edges of legal procedure, listens to "authentic" music that identifies him as a man of independent intelligence, and despite physical flaws (his subordinates refer to him as the Weeble behind his back) and middle age has no difficulty getting women to sleep with him -- believes he has pegged the murderer as Dr. Jeremy Bishop, the anesthetist who cared for Alison when she was first admitted. But even though the killer demonstrates some perverse connection to Thorne, he is careful to leave no evidence, and only Thorne is convinced that it's Bishop. And the last time Thorne trusted his instincts, things went terribly wrong.

The novel switches between three perspectives: Thorne, the killer (both from the third-person), and Alison.  The killer continually drops hints about his activities and motivations, without giving the game fully away. Alison -- full of wit and sarcasm -- struggles with the knowledge of her condition and strains to communicate with eye blinks and an alphabet board. Thorne's sections move the story along while providing insights into his troubled past and present loneliness.

Aside from the deeply disturbing condition of Alison Willets, which just gave me the willies, I found Sleepyhead fairly ordinary detective fiction. Few surprises, fairly standard characters, a modicum of suspense, and a perpetrator that I sussed out really, really early (I'm not usually this clever). I've got to say that when Thorne cued up the Johnny Cash in his car stereo, there was some serious eye-rolling on my part. Thorne's chase to stop the last murder is a nailbiter, although the scene he comes upon was like a bad opera -- with a whole lot of singing (to extend the metaphor) from the killer before the denouement.

I haven't heard Simon Prebble narrate very many books, so I look for opportunities to remedy that. When I saw he was the narrator of this book -- offered via the Audiobook Jukebox's Solid Gold Reviewer program -- I requested it. Prebble is such a fine, consistent reader -- infusing the narrative with honest emotion, authentic voices and brilliant pacing. He alters his reading speed along with the timbre and volume of his speech to build suspense, create characters and always move the story forward with excitement and interest. Sleepyhead is no exception.

Prebble changes his delivery with each narrative perspective -- it's clear when we move from one to another.  He voices the characters distinctively but without a lot of drama, which makes everyone sound natural. When he's reading Alison's sections, he moves into a higher register without being femmy and her underlying fear and hovering tragedy are clear in Prebble's voice.

I wish the producer had inserted just a wee bit more silence when the perspectives changed, though. The switches -- although clear in Prebble's narration -- gave this listener a bit of whiplash as my brain tried to catch up with each change. A short pause would have helped to prepare me, serving the same purpose as that bit of white space does in print.

At the end of the novel, Alison makes the decision that I think I would make were I in her shoes, and I'm glad that Billingham chose that fate for her. In his afterword (ooh! so happy the afterword was included!), originally published in 2001, Billingham makes a dig at English politicians who, "while they happily purchase private healthcare, consistently refuse to fund the NHS [National Health Service] adequately in the hope that it will die a nice quiet death." Sounds a little like our no-nothing Congress, except that they are going about their hoped-for execution of the Affordable Care Act with a great deal of noise.

HighBridge Audio provided me a copy of Sleepyhead. I thank them for the opportunity to listen.

[The illustration of the physics principles by which a Weeble operates was created by KDS444 and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
Narrated by Simon Prebble
HighBridge Audio, 2013. 10:32

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