Take the most thrilling season of Law & Order: SVU, combine it with the darkest episodes of Criminal Minds, add in a few sci-fi touches (à la J.D. Robb), and give it all a social-media sort of consciousness, and you just might begin to get an idea of what to expect from Shudder by Harry F. Kane.
In Kane's near-future world, humanity is sustained (to an extent) by an artificial environment, protected (I use the term loosely) by an outsourced police force, and comforted (if you can call it that) by a society where fetish has become the new mainstream. It's a very strange, very disturbing society, and one which says a lot about the present, and where we're headed. Not to give anything away, but the true identity of the murderous sex doll at the heart of the secondary story line is just dripping with pornographic social relevance. In fact, that social commentary is a substantial element of Shudder, in that it's a book where the ideas are just as important as the events.
I don't read a lot of mystery/detective novels myself, mainly because I'm a puzzle-fiend at heart. I either lose patience with a mystery I've already solved, or become frustrated with a puzzle that's ruined by the last-minute addition of pieces that simply don't fit. Fortunately, Shudder came to me with an unusual hook that played straight into my morbid curiosity. For me, the procedural element of the story was exceptionally strong, keeping me engaged throughout, and nicely balancing that sense of mystery with some rather graphic revelations of gore. There are twists, and it does demand the willing suspension of disbelief in places, but Kane never cheats the reader . . . even if his characters don't get off so easily.
The pacing was a bit slow for my tastes, but the narrative was interesting enough to carry me through. In fact, I quite liked the language of the tale, and appreciated the way in which Kane allowed the narrative to periodically wander. In most cases, that would have tried my patience, prompting me to either skip ahead or relegate the book to my DNF pile, but I was honestly interested in what he had to say - and if I didn't always agree with him, that was all part of the appeal.
As for the characters . . . well, if you want safe, admirable, heroic characters, you're best off looking elsewhere. Kane is an author who clearly believes in balance, and in creating human beings with human flaws and human vices. His characters are deeply troubled (as are most people in this near-future society), but they're also sincere. I never really warmed up to Natalie, mostly because she seemed so deliberately helpless to address her psychological problems, but she does play a crucial role . . . and one that works. On the surface, Dave is the typical solider-for-hire, one with a string of abandoned careers behind him, but he has some very dark places in his soul as well. Anton, the albino Amazon, was by far the most intriguing character for me, as much because of what he does (managing social morale for the government) as who he is.
As for Joshua, the latex-clad serial killer at the heart of all the darkness, it's no wonder he held such an attraction. His actions may be atrocious, his morality revolting, and his thoughts disgusting, but his depth of emotion is almost enviable. His perverse glee is the only real happiness to be encountered in the story, which makes for a deliciously uncomfortable reading experience.
Dark, edgy, and provocative, Shudder is definitely one of the more interesting literary discoveries I've made this year. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about the ending but, in a perverse sort of way, I'm actually excited by that uncertainty - a story this dark shouldn't end up all tidy, clean, and happy.Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins