Written by Lee Thompson — Lee Thompson has previously written horror, but A Beautiful Madness is his first crime book. It has a classic noir set-up with a dysfunctional family whose dirty secrets refuse to stay buried despite everyone’s best efforts. The themes reminded me of Tom Piccirilli (The Last Kind Words, The Last Whisper in the Dark), to whom, coincidentally, this book is dedicated.
The story is told from the perspective of Sammy Woods, drug dealer to the rich and unsatisfied. He is the eldest son of disgraced former governor of Texas, Eddie Woods. Eddie, though prepared to make the kind of shady deals that all successful political operators need to, had always been thought of as essentially a good man. However, one day he seemed to snap, viciously assaulting his wife with a metal pipe and leaving her paralysed. He has never been able to provide an explanation for the act which destroyed his family. His daughter Dee has drifted away from the family unit into a life of petty crime, getting by on her wits and ability to manipulate people, only surfacing when she wants something. Only the youngest son, Andrew, appears to have recovered, and is married and in a stable job and the only one to remain on terms with Eddie.
When 17-year-old neighbour Shaun Garrett is brutally attacked and left dead on Eddie’s lawn, Sammy is ready to believe his father has snapped again. However, Eddie says that Shaun was pursued by an unknown man and his story appears to be true when two more men – a police officer and a member of Sammy’s gang – are killed after being sent to keep Eddie safe. The range of possible suspects includes drug dealers trying to muscle in on Sammy’s turf, political enemies of Eddie’s from the past, and possible victims of one of Dee’s random acts of cruelty looking for revenge. Reluctantly, as the body count rises, Sammy is forced into an uneasy truce with the detective investing gate the case, Jim Thompson. He’s also the man who investigated Eddie’s attack on his wife.
There is a lot to admire in this book. Sammy’s ambivalence to his family and the nagging guilt he is beginning to feel about his work are thrown into sharp relief by the contrast of the well-grounded Thompson, whose devotion to his wife and commitment to his job are convincingly portrayed. Indeed the author is careful to give even the more peripheral characters some depth. There is a feverish quality to the book, particularly through the first two thirds, which left me off balance and unsure of where the narrative was headed, which had the effect of keeping up the tension.
Thompson knows just when and what to reveal, and when to keep it hidden – presumably a skill he honed in his horror writing days. As more of the killer is revealed, and what a memorable character this person is, that feeling recedes, and the development of Sammy’s character comes clearly into focus. He has changed from selfish beginnings to someone better able to face himself and his family’s past. This really is a remarkable effort, which is only let down slightly at the very end, by the resolution of the family’s difficulties. This seems overly optimistic to me given everything that had gone before.
You can read our interview with the author here. A Beautiful Madness comes out on 5 August.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars