Cross, Neil - 'Captured'
Although Neil Cross has lived in New Zealand for several years, he still sets his disturbing and off-kilter psychological thrillers back in his birthplace, the United Kingdom. CAPTURED is his latest novel - another dark and twisted tale from an author who is equally well-known for taking the scriptwriting helm of recent series of award-winning BBC spy drama Spooks, and creating the recent British cop show Luther (starring Idris Alba of The Wire fame).
CAPTURED contains several of the ingredients that earned Cross deserved acclaim (including a Booker longlisting for Always the Sun, a troubling tale of the lengths a father might go to in order to protect his bullied child) for his previous novels: flawed characters catapulted into emotional turmoil; menace lurking beneath bleak settings; crisp and spare prose; situations quickly spiralling horribly out of control; and occasional literary flourishes.
While Cross is a crime thriller writer (treading the gritty and grimy edge of the genre), he doesn't write detective stories as such; although in CAPTURED the main character, dying middle-aged artist Kenny, does undertake an amateur investigation into the disappearance of an old friend. An investigation that certainly doesn't follow the police handbook.
"Kenny wrote the list because he was dying," begins CAPTURED. "Earlier that morning, an MRI scan had revealed that a malignant brain cancer had germinated in the moist secrecy of his skull like a mushroom in compost. He had six weeks to live, maybe less."
We quickly learn that the list in question contains four names that the 'hero' of the tale (not that hero is an accurate word - characters in Cross's books are never black nor white, but shifting and swirling shades of grey), a painter living in a remote cottage, feels he's let down in some way during his life: his ex-wife; two strangers who crossed his path in a shocking incident years before; and a childhood best friend.
Determined to put things right with each of them before he shuffles off his mortal coil, Kenny then discovers that Callie Barton, the young girl who showed an awkward Kenny much-needed kindness when they were kids, has gone missing. Although Callie's husband denied any involvement, and the police eventually stopped digging, Kenny believes he's hiding something. With time running out, Kenny decides to take matters into his own hands, and use any means necessary to get to the truth - unwittingly endangering not only himself, but the few friends he still has.
CAPTURED is a slim book and a quick read; not because of its size, but because Cross hooks the reader early and has you completely engrossed. Once you start, you'll struggle to put it down (and want to immediately get back to it if you do). Cross takes readers to some tense and uncomfortable places, as Kenny's increasingly obsessive investigations and actions upset the balance in many lives. What starts as a simple mission to find an old friend and say thanks quickly escalates into something far darker - and Cross had this reader on the edge of his seat, engrossed and fully invested in Kenny's story even when things got a little crazy, violent, and extreme.
Cross has a particular knack for character - even minor characters who only briefly appear are memorably and uniquely well-drawn. Not by laundry-list description as used by lesser authors, but with telling details providing insights into the character's personality and life, beyond how they look, or 'quirks'. Perhaps due to his work as a TV screenwriter, he also has a nice touch with building tension.
Overall, crisp and vivid prose powers a pacy and tense story that has some mystery and plenty of thrills, while touching on wider themes like justice, the importance we sometimes place on fleeting events, memory and reality, and concerns about what legacy each of us may leave behind when we go.
Read another review of CAPTURED.
Craig Sisterson, New Zealand
Craig Sisterson is a New Zealand-based writer and reviewer. He also blogs on crime and thriller fiction news and issues at kiwicrime.blogspot.com.