Written by Adrian Deans — I’m an advocate of judging a book by its cover. When you’re walking through a bookstore, or even browsing on Amazon, a simple, intriguing cover, a good blurb and a couple of choice quotes can really make a book stand out. Straight Jacket by Adrian Deans does this well – a review on the front cover compares Adrian Deans to Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, and another on the back compares this book to American Psycho. Picking up the bright orange book you can’t help but be intrigued. How can it be both a portrayal of the down-and-outs at their most desperate, and the hopelessly rich at their most inhumane?
It can, and it is.
Morgen Tanjenz is a corporate lawyer with an overactive sense of justice and a barely-hidden drug problem. His mission in life is to reward the virtuous in society, and punish the worthless dregs. His favourite hobby is ‘life sculpture’ – the act of intervening anonymously in people’s lives, directing them towards the destiny he feels they deserve.
His job – when he turns up and doesn’t delegate the work, at least – is equal second in charge of legal compliance at a large Sydney investment bank. This affords him plenty of time and money to practice his hobby. With the help of his dubious friend Xeno (pronounced Geno) he performs the work of the Dark Prince; work that involves ending marriages, bankrupting cults and impersonating Salvation Army donation collectors. He lives a life of secure contentment, until his boss develops cancer and the resulting departmental reshuffle sees Morgen passed over for promotion in favour of Don Affridge, a coward and an ineffective boss, but a hard worker.
Morgen doesn’t see Affridge as worthy of the position of head of compliance, a job that should be his. He swiftly sets about doing what he can to put things right. His plan starts with graffiti in the men’s room and quickly descends into lacing Affridge’s coffee with heroin. But before long Morgen, a habitual user of several different drugs, starts to lose control of his life sculptures as they start to overlap. He forms a relationship with Clair Bowyer, a married police detective investigating a series of gruesome murders on Sydney’s North Shore. The so-called Gorge Killer is taking young women and murdering them, dumping their bodies in a gorge in the outer suburbs. The police, already torn apart by corruption, are struggling to find any leads at all until an anonymous letter to a local newspaper claiming to be from the killer leaves them red faced.
Throughout the novel we learn things about Morgen even as he learns them about himself. He cares for people – he has a soft spot for those he sees as the victims of life’s injustices. He’s falling for Clair, a conquest, a life-sculpture that turns into so much more. He is also damaged – something that comes out during the routine psychological assessment that is a necessary part of promotion – and haunted in his dreams by a scene in a suburban park, a scene that he can’t help returning to.
As Morgen’s life sculptures start to interweave and grow into something he can’t control, scenes from his earlier life start coming back to him. The police, once falling apart from internal squabbling, close in on the gorge killer. The local paper spots a development in the story that takes it to international prominence. And, as all aspects of Morgen’s life start to come together, there is more than one person who wants him dead. The novel builds brilliantly to a conclusion that’s both unpredictable and inevitable.
Oddly enough the novel’s greatest strength is also one of its weaknesses. The first person narrator is unconventional, hard to sympathise with, and generally unlikeable for most of the book. However, there is something about Deans’ writing that makes you want to read more. The novel doesn’t let up, going deeper and deeper into the psyche of the narrator, and into the origins of his warped sense of justice. Even after the final page I still wanted to read more, and thankfully the last chapter is followed by blurbs for the author’s previous two books. Once again I was intrigued enough to search them out, and look forward to reading them as well. After all, it’s alright to judge a book by its cover when the cover gets it so right.
High Horse Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars