Reviewed by Rod McLary
Jack Heath is the bestselling author of about twenty books for young adults and children. His books have been short-listed for many awards. However, with his new novel Hangman, he has made a giant leap into another genre – dark and perverse crime novels.
In Timothy Blake – the young protagonist of this novel – the author has created a character whom you would never wish to meet anywhere let alone in a dark alley. By his own admission, Timothy is ‘criminally insane’ yet he functions moderately well in the community and has an important although unusual role to play in the criminal justice system.
Timothy is loosely engaged by the Houston Texas office of the FBI to assist them in solving impossible cases where the FBI investigators can see no way forward. Locked in a symbiotic and dark relationship with the local FBI chief, Timothy does not work for money. His reward for solving a case is almost unthinkable and it would be a gross [in both senses of the word] spoiler to even hint at what it is. It is perhaps sufficient to say that statistically Texas has the highest rate of state-sanctioned deaths in the United States. That is not – in the context of this novel – a random fact. There is a further hint in the title of the novel – Hangman. Timothy is not the ‘Hangman’ but he does have a close connection with the appointed hangman.
Timothy has a backstory which is gradually revealed as the plot unfolds. He was orphaned as a baby and spent his formative years in the foster care system. His experiences were not of a kind which would assist him in finding a place in mainstream society. While some elements of Timothy’s backstory are heartbreaking, others are simply horrifying.
With clever writing, the author merges Timothy’s story with that of an FBI officer who is appointed to work with him – or to shadow him as Timothy believes. The developing relationship between Timothy and this beautiful FBI officer provides a modicum of romance – a welcome relief from the sometimes gruelling main story. However, the relationship is reluctantly terminated by Timothy who is very much aware of how little he can offer to an intimate relationship. Timothy’s insight into and his understanding of his character and predilections is one of his few redeeming qualities. The reader almost develops a degree of sympathy for a young man who has had a tragic life and, in his own peculiar way, is trying to make a place for himself in the world.
The main story centres on a young teenage boy who has seemingly disappeared on his way home from school. His mother receives a ransom call and has to produce a sum of money within twenty-four hours. There is little time given by the kidnapper for the FBI to solve the crime and rescue the boy. The FBI investigators have no answers so Timothy is called in to exercise his particular skills and almost straightaway he identifies incongruities which take the investigation into some dark and gruesome corners. Resolving these apparent incongruities leads Timothy into a dark world of domestic violence, incest, child sexual abuse and organ harvesting. The death count rises as Timothy struggles to solve the kidnapping. Hangman is not a novel for the faint-hearted.
As with all crime novels, the key question to be answered is – why? Why was the boy kidnapped and held to ransom and why are seven other people killed along the way? What is the motivation behind these senseless killings? The answers are unexpected and will surprise most readers.
Aside from the more gruesome aspects of the plot, Hangman has all the elements which make a crime novel a successful one – a tight and suspenseful plot, a crime which seems almost beyond solving, an unorthodox protagonist with unorthodox but excellent detecting skills, and characters who grab your attention and won’t let go.
At the end of the novel, when Timothy’s relationship with the Head of the local FBI office falls apart and he is thrown back on the streets, an unexpected benefactor comes to his rescue with the offer of another job. Perhaps, this is a hint that another story about Timothy is to come.
In his Acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author thanks his publisher for making the book ‘much more palatable’. One wonders what was left out! The author also thanks the crime writers who helped him ‘dish up a repulsive character in an appealing way’. This, I think, is a fine way to describe Timothy – a repulsive character but one who has sufficient appeal for the reader to care what happens to him. For a young writer who has just written his first adult novel in a field as tough as the crime genre, this is an excellent start.
Jack Heath is an Australian writer who lives on the land of the Ngunnawal people in Canberra. Parts of the novel were written when the author was on a research trip to Houston Texas.
by Jack Heath
Allen & Unwin
ISBN 978 1 76029 747 3