Wednesday, March 05, 2008

BURIAL GROUND by John Rickards

Penguin Books, £7.99, ISBN 978-0141021171

With each installment of his series featuring ex-FBI agent Alex Rourke, John Rickards seems to be attempting a different feel while keeping the same characters in believable circumstances. 2005's The Touch of Ghosts was a well written PI story with a personal angle and a couple of intriguing scenes - specifically the single gunshot and the possibility of Rourke being able to say goodbye to someone he loved - that marked it out from the crowd. 2007's The Darkness Inside slipped gears to become a Cobenesque thriller of a man caught up in increasingly insane circumstances that seem wildly beyond his control and in his latest novel, Burial Ground, Rickards plays with the "survival horror" genre that has often been used in movies and video games, but rarely in novels.

There are noteable exceptions, of course. David Morrell attempted to put a group of character in an isolated situation with his highly succesful Creepers and Scavengers, but even if these books went over well with readers, this reviewer was left somewhat cold by characters who seemed to service the plot more often than they engaged as people, and specifically in Scavengers there was a sense that the author knew a great deal about the genre and the subject matter but didn't particularly have the kind of heartfelt enthusiasm that convinces a reader to believe in a novel.

The setup here is intriguing: Rourke recieves a note asking him to find "the crosses" or more people will die. It sounds like the kind of mad quest a James Patterson serial killer might construct, and Rourke isn't so dumb as to ignore the possibility of a madman behind the note, so sets off to find the person who wrote the note in an isolated midwestern community. Trapped in a bar with a group of disparate individuals, a storm blowing the roads to hell and preventing any contact with the outside world, Rourke soon realises there may be a killer in their midst. The question is who? And are they the same person who wrote the note?

In this kind of story - where a group of people are isolated from the rest of the world in a dangerous situation - character should be vitally important. The stakes should be high and personal. Video games get away with using the player as a central character, creating a false sense of idetification. Movies use THX and impressive light shows to distract from concerns and pull in the viewer. Novels must use the psychological nature of these situations to their advantage.

Its a trick that, for the most part, Rickards manages well. Alex Rourke has been previously established as a man of convictions and morality who sometimes walks in shadows. We can identify with his good intentions and the ways in which he sometimes strays from these. At the start of this novel, we have some indication that he is troubled by some of his past choices, particularly those he made in The Darkness Inside. These come mostly from strange momentary hallucinations where he seems to envision himself in a world rotted from the inside out, trying desperately to save an innocent girl from some threat he cannot comprehend. The doctors - and the readers - know exactly what symbolism to take from this and its a pity that Rickards swiftly seems to forget this aspect of ourke's psychology at the novels midway point where no real resolution is reached.

Luckily, while this intriguing aspect of the character is swiftly dropped it does nothing to diminish the rapport we have built with him across the course of the novel and by the time we realise that these "hallucinations" or dreams, whatever they are, have become non-existent we are invested in Rourke's fate as well as those trapped with him.

Rickards is a relatively young novelist (in fact not much older than your reviewer), and as such provides a degree of easy pop-culture cool that drop convincingly into the narrative. Given the nature of the story, there are horror references a plenty including an appearance from the bridge out of the Evil Dead movies, while Rourke's visions are clearly a reference to the survival horror video game series, Silent Hill. The MacBride clan (named for fellow crime writer, Stuart MacBride, a joke that is wisely not overplayed) seem to reference any number of backwoods horror movies, and made this particular reviewer think specifically of the Jack Ketchum novel, Off Season. Although for every cliche he throws in, Rickards is smart enough to throw an extra curve ball that is especially surprising and welcome with the MacBride subplot.

Burial Ground is a smart thriller with some surprising elements thrown into the mix. At times, Rickards seems to let go of ideas just when they become intriguing, but he succeeds in crafting a page-turner of a book with a protagonist just the right side of moral and a cast of supporting characters who can surprise the reader as much as they do Alex Rourke. It whips along at a snappy pace, and the sense of isolation is effectively unnerving. Rickards is a writer with some serious chops, who adapts and grows with each book. And as to the blurb on the back about this being an update of Christie's And Then There Were None? No. Its much, much better than that.

Russel McLean for crimescenescotland, 05/03/08

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