Books: “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder” by Saul Black
Publishing Info: St. Martin’s Press, September 2015; Orion, November 2016
Where Did I Get These Books: The library!
Book Descriptions: When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper’s isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it’s the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it’s just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.
For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of victims–women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them–has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she’s losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.
But the murders at the Cooper farmhouse didn’t quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena’s ten-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more dangerous than what she’s running from.
In this extraordinary, pulse-pounding debut, Saul Black takes us deep into the mind of a psychopath, and into the troubled heart of the woman determined to stop him.
The second spine-chilling serial-killer thriller featuring homicide detective Valerie Hart from the author of the critically-acclaimed THE KILLING LESSONS.
Troubled San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart is planning a rare weekend away from the job when she gets the call. A body has been found. A woman, brutally murdered. And the cryptic note left by the body is addressed to Valerie.
The victim is unknown to her, but as Valerie analyses the scene, the clues begin to point in a deeply disturbing direction: to a maximum security prison where a woman called Katherine Glass is awaiting execution for a series of gruesome killings. And Valerie was the cop who put her there.
The last thing Valerie wants to do is re-enter Katherine’s twisted world, but when a second body is discovered, with another puzzling clue, she realises she has no choice. Katherine Glass holds the key to the killings, and Valerie needs to find out what she knows before the murders come even closer to home.
Even if it means playing a deadly game where once again, the psychopathic killer holds all the cards.
Review: A few years ago, I took a chance on a book called “The Killing Lessons” by Saul Black. I went in more interested in the overall story and plot, expecting it to be a one off with horrific travelling murderers and a run of the mill hard boiled detective on their tail. But what I found instead was Valerie Hart, a damaged, complex, and fascinating protagonist whose demons and past eclipsed the already compelling and disturbing main plotline. A year later, “Lovemurder” came out, and I was thrilled to see that Valerie Hart was, once again, the hero of the tale. And now, a few years after that, the third in the Valerie Hart series “Anything For You” is about to come out. In anticipation of this new novel, I decided to go back and revisit “The Killing Lessons” and “Lovemurder”, and get myself super hyped for the return of Valerie. So before I review that book, let’s look at the books that came before it, as they are very different stories, and yet are connected by a protagonist that I’ve come to really enjoy.
When we first meet Valerie in “The Killing Lessons”, she is a detective in San Francisco who is haunted by a couple of different things. The first is that she has had a couple of unsolved cases that she can’t shake, cases that have rocked her to her core and have become a dark obsession. The other is a failed relationship with another detective named Nick Blaskovich. She and Nick had a real shot at happily ever after, but after her frustrations about her unsolved cases made her spiral, she pushed him away in the most destructive ways possible. Little does she know that out east in Colorado, the men she has been trying to find are about to strike again, and this time they mess up and leave a witness alive, a little girl named Nell who ran when her mother and brother were brutally murdered. Black seamlessly connects the stories of Valerie, Nell, and the two murderers, and shows them on a collision course. Black gives a lot of attention to all of the players, the chapters trading off between what Xander and Paulie, the murderers, are up to, what Nell is doing as she hides from them, and how Valerie is slowly but surely piecing their tracks together and closing in on them. The story treads more towards the literary than what you may expect from a detective story, and the brutality is striking, and at times a little much to handle. When I read it initially it didn’t seem to bother me, but during my revisit the violence, which is mostly directed towards women, was very difficult to swallow. I think that had Valerie not been given as much attention, depth, and complexity, I would have been more critical. But as it was, Valerie’s storyline shows not only the tenacity and spunk of a truly gifted detective, but also what being a good detective can sometimes do to your psychological state.
In “Lovemurder”, we turn from overblown sadistic violence, and gravitate more towards a psychological cat and mouse game. In this story, Valerie has to confront Katherine Glass, a serial killer that she put away years ago, but whose mystery partner has started killing again, and claims they won’t stop unless Glass is set free. Like Hart, Glass is a hyper-intelligent woman who knows how to read people, and when she and Valerie start to face off again, the mind games start up again between the two women. Glass claims that she wants to help Valerie since her partner, whom she never knew the identity of, left her high and dry to rot in jail, but Valerie isn’t certain that she can fully trust this woman, insights aside. In this story, there is still a case that is haunting her, but Valerie has grown from the complete mess that she is in “The Killing Lessons”, and exudes a new strength and confidence that really suits her. I like seeing her character grow between novels, as had she just remained static between the two it would have been exhausting. I also liked that Black didn’t feel a need to up the ante on the violence, and that while there is STILL violence in this book, it doesn’t feel nearly as exploitative or misogynistic as it did in “The Killing Lessons”. On top of that, Katherine Glass is another fascinating, complex character, and I really liked seeing her and Valerie go head to head in a battle of the wits. Another aspect I liked is that Valerie’s personal life with Nick is still there, but it doesn’t take the forefront, nor does Black put Valerie in any situation where she is the ‘bad guy’ because she takes her job so seriously and will put it over romance when she deems it fit to do so.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t pitfalls with Hart and her characterization. I do think that from time to time Black does fall into the ‘men writing women’ trap. Every once in awhile Valerie may do something that would make me pause and say ‘okay, that reads more like a guy’s idea of what a woman would do as opposed to how a woman author would write and read the same situation’. And it’s hard to deny that, as mentioned above, there are definitely misogynistic undertones towards some of the women characters, be it as victims, or just other characters that aren’t Valerie (this is especially evident with a character named Carla in “The Killing Lessons”; her hatred for Valerie is petty and comes back to a man). Plus, there were some strange moments, especially in “The Killing Lessons”, where objectification and violence ruled, and sexuality popped up in places it probably shouldn’t. While it makes some sense when it’s from Xander and Paulie’s point of view (they are sexual sadists after all), there was one moment involving Nell, a prepubescent girl, and the odd note that she hasn’t hit puberty yet as denoted by a, shall we say, lack of certain secondary sexual characteristics. Why did THAT need to be noted? What did it add to the plot as a whole, ESPECIALLY when the observation is coming from a character who is supposed to be benevolent and someone she is safe with?
But that said, as a whole I am always interested in finding out more about Valerie, and to see where she goes next. So go on I shall, problematic aspects aside (but also kept track of, in case it becomes too much). Suffice to say, when I saw that Black had a new book about her, I was THRILLED and requested it from NetGalley almost immediately. Valerie herself is such a compelling character, as of now I am eager to come back for more. On Thursday, I’ll review her newest adventure, “Anything For You”.
Rating 7 and 8: Black has brutal, dark, and propulsive thrillers, but the true strength is the protagonist Valerie Hart. These books aren’t for the faint of heart and sometimes come off as sexist in some ways, but overall Hart is a complex and interesting character to follow.