After working for the police and in child protection, John Nicholl became a crime author and Killing Evil is his 14th psychological thriller. The difficult issues he dealt with in his previous career come to the fore and inform the story in Killing Evil. It’s not a subtle novel. It doesn’t draw you in with atmosphere, detail or mystery. But it is propulsive – full of energy and emotion, along with a hint of madness.
The story begins in diary-like format, with schoolgirl Alice Granger talking about her daily life, which is frequently traumatic, and her hatred of her father. He’s a minister in the church, but he’s very controlling of the family and he has been raping Alice since she was four years old. That’s some pretty harsh stuff but Alice is tough to it and has decided he must die for his sins. She’s worried because her father has started looking at her younger sister in that way, and she wants to protect her sibling.
It’s not a spoiler to say – although if you don’t trust me stop reading now…
…that dispatching him is easier than she imagined. When the family is on a holiday in West Wales, he takes them on a walk along the cliffs and the moment she gets her chance, Alice pushes him over the edge and down he goes. Good riddance, you might think.
Alice is nervous that the police might suspect her, but she puts on an act and her father’s death is marked down as an accident. You might think the family’s problems are over now that he is out of their lives but Alice’s mother has been damaged by years of psychological abuse and things may never get back to normal for her. However, killing her father and fooling the police have given Alice confidence. She leaves home as soon as she is old enough, studies and gets a job in the probation service. Her aim becomes to avenge all the other children who have been sexually abused. When perpetrators are released from prison, she finds ways to trap them and mete out her own brand of justice.
The novel is set in Wales, but few places are mentioned. Alice’s activities take place in rural areas and the author and Alice use the remote fields, forests and beaches to their advantage. With each killing she grows increasingly confident, and even more unhinged. Gradually, you’ll reach a turning point with Alice and run out of sympathy for her. She flips from being the protagonist to the antagonist in the story. The point at which that takes place is likely to be different for everyone. Alcohol and drugs are involved in Alice’s psychosis.
There are funny moments in the book – at one point a dog runs off with part of a dismembered corpse in its mouth. There are also moments that might be funny were they not so tragic. Alice’s weird lies to the police, her lack of self-control, inability to read situations and the fact that she’ll boast about her cunning and two pages later do something so brazen you wonder about her self awareness – all these things push her to the edge of believability. And at times she crosses that boundary. Although Alice’s first crime was carried out to protect her younger sister, later in the book she has no relationship whatsoever with her sibling, which seems odd and is never explained.
Killing Evil is a book of extremes. The killings are brutal – violence, often followed by matter-of-fact descriptions of how Alice disposes of the bodies. There are some moments when she has second thoughts about what she’s doing, but generally she isn’t a nuanced character. She is victim turned vigilante, and perhaps vigilantes aren’t particularly nuanced people. The other characters, such as Alice’s boss at work and the woman detective investigating, don’t occupy enough of the story to seem fully realised. Then again, we are seeing them through Alice’s unreliable POV anyway.
However, the key question is: does this book entertain? And the answer is: yes it does. It’s easy to read and easy to pick up and put down. Having said that, you can blast through it in one or two sittings. It’s perfect pulp reading for your commute. Killing Evil is shocking and unnerving in places, but you’ll be turning through those pages to find out what mad tangent Alice will go off on next, and wondering if and how they’ll manage to stop her. She’s a tragic character, quite out of touch with reality. Can you really kill evil? Read the book and find out.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars