Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black

Book Review

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black

I'll put it right out there at the beginning; The Killing Lessons (Orion Publishing) is bloody terrifying and pretty damn miserable. It's not for the fainthearted, or anyone who walks dimly lit streets alone or opens their door to strangers.

The fact that it's about a serial killer who kidnaps, tortures and murders women should give you a clue, but so many serial killers have been romanticised in recent literature, films and television; think of the conscious stricken Dexter or Hannibal Lecter with his redeeming affection for Clarice.

Black's serial killer does not have a redeeming quality.

The Killing Lessons starts with serial killer Xander and his rather inept but equally sadistic sidekick Paulie entering the home of Rowena Cooper with murder on their minds. Her young daughter Nell is the only one who escapes and runs away into the freezing woods, injured and close to death.
Nell's story intertwines with two others; that of hard drinking detective Valarie who's desperately trying to track this serial killer down before she has a break down, and the killer himself, Xander, as he captures another woman and prepares to continue his 'work'.

It's written by Saul Black, who is actually British author Glen Duncan, the writer of The Last Werewolf series. There are no mythical creatures in The Killing Lessons but it is just as dark as his other work.

I wanted to like this book, and for the most part I did, but there were areas that just let it down.

One of the aspects I did like was that the reader knows who the murderer is right from the start. It makes you read on as you see the investigative team hone in and try to catch him. And, even though he's a monstrous character and you want him to be caught, you're still fascinated by him and almost on his side, almost.

I also liked that the book goes into the history of why Xander is so spectacularly screwed up. Many books hint at why a twisted character is the way he or she is, but leaves the rest to the reader's imagination. I'm too lazy for that; I want to know all the gory details. I won't give any spoilers but needless to say little Xander didn't have a sunshine and ice cream childhood.

Yet, this leads into one of the things I didn't like about The Killing Lessons; the predictable aspects of the storyline. A serial killer with a traumatic childhood is not exactly something new. To be fair to Black there is quite a good twist from his childhood that reverberates in his killings, but it still is not entirely original.

There are a few other, maybe not cliches, but easy storytelling devices in the book; people being in the right place at the right time, the timing being just a bit too perfect, and quite often the police getting a break through with something tiny or simply a clue that's a bit too good to be true.

The character of the detective, a troubled, hard drinking cop is also a cliche, but Black has turned it on its head a bit by making her a woman. It was quite pleasant to see a female maverick detective, hung over on the job, almost getting fired and tormented by a past relationship. Yet, it's kind of been done before.

I also felt like Nell's storyline didn't add much to the narrative. Again, I don't want to give anything away but Black either needed to explore the story and characters more in that particular plotline, or get rid of it completely. It goes relatively quiet in the middle of the book but then comes back into play near the end in a way that I didn't feel was realistic.

I also felt that the character of Carla was completely pointless and her hatred of Valarie just slowed down the book.

That is quite a few things I didn't like.
To mention something else good about it, Black is wonderful at catching the feeling of pure terror, which is why The Killing Lessons so uncomfortable to read.
The unfortunate woman who finds herself in Xander's basement and her palpable terror are entirely believable.

The book is well paced. It immediately jumps straight in, hits the ground running, and continues. And although there are some cliche characteristics most of the characters themselves are engaging.

It's just a bit too gruesome for me. Maybe gruesome isn't the right word. Unsettling, maybe? Which I suppose is a success for such a dark thriller

I'd give The Killing Lessons three out of five stars. The writing was good but the storyline was a bit too easily tied up in places.


  1. Sounds a bit too gory and gruesome for me. Squeamish reader!

    Stephanie Jane @ Literary Flits

    1. It is pretty gory, I had to take breaks from reading it!
      Thanks for reading.