Reviewed by Rod McLary
‘Headcase’ is defined by the Urban Dictionary as ‘a crazy, nutty, eccentric person’. Readers of the Hangman series by Jack Heath and are familiar with the series’ protagonist Timothy Blake would immediately agree that word perfectly describes him. However, the single use of ‘headcase’ in the novel appears almost at the end and refers not to Timothy but someone else entirely. The context in which this occurs adds a frisson of pleasure to this rather frightening story.
Timothy is no longer physically whole as readers of the previous novel Hideout would know. He has lost his right arm and his left thumb in rather awful circumstances and consequently is a little older and wiser. Now employed by the CIA which is conducting a covert operation in the United States – an operation which is completely illegal as the CIA is precluded from operating on American soil – Timothy and his ‘handler’ Zara are investigating what appears to be a ‘dead astronaut’ lying in a field at the Johnson Space Centre – nicknamed Space City.
There are three timeframes in Headcase – chapters headed ‘Now’ narrate Timothy’s committal to and experiences in the Behavioural Health Unit of the George Clark Red Memorial Hospital; those headed ‘Two Weeks Ago’ describe the discovery of the astronaut and the subsequent events which lead to his committal; and those headed ‘Seven Years Ago’ describe a kidnapping of a twelve-year-old girl and the eventual imprisonment of her kidnapper. The background to and the consequences of the kidnapping reverberate through the ‘Two Weeks Ago’ chapters.
The ‘Now’ chapters, which largely chronicle the discussions between Timothy and his psychiatrist Dr Renee Diaz, allow him – and the reader – to explore the root causes of his becoming a cannibal. It must be said though that Dr Diaz does not believe him.
Overarching all three timeframes is an intricate plot involving the MSS [the Chinese agency responsible for counterintelligence, foreign intelligence and political security]; the CIA [albeit covertly]; the FBI and the Houston Police. Balancing these intricacies is a masterful achievement by the author who also skilfully weaves in a personal interest story as Timothy and Zara edge their way towards a sexual relationship. Timothy however still yearns for Reese Thistle – the FBI agent whom he loved and who abandoned him when she discovered a headless corpse in their freezer.
There is also an interesting subplot involving the hunt for a serial killer known as the Texas Reaper. As the killer’s description is not unlike Timothy’s, there is some suspicion he may be the Reaper. However, the real identity of the killer comes as a complete surprise.
Despite his predilection for human flesh, Timothy is quite an engaging character – he has a finely-tuned sense of humour, is very intelligent and perceptive, but has a self-deprecating manner. He describes himself as ‘Five eight. Scruffy. Kind of an asshole’ . In Headcase, he takes quite a battering – he is beaten up, shot at, locked in a hypobaric chamber [twice], injected with sedatives – but in the end, his thoughts continue to turn to Reese Thistle.
Jack Heath has crafted a thriller with an intricate plot which demands attention but is leavened by Timothy’s self-talk and his disclosure of his damaged personality. There has been a continued refinement in the Hangman novels – each one is more engaging and exciting than the one before. As with all five novels in the series, its title comprises just one word beginning with the letter ‘H’; and each chapter includes a riddle which defies solution [at least for this reader].
An excellent addition to the series. Well recommended.
by Jack Heath
Allen and Unwin
ISBN 978 176106 523 1