Certain phrases are rich with meaning and far imply more than show. Like “Exhibit A”. It speaks of courtrooms, of mountains of evidence, of judicial red in tape and claw grinding its way through someone’s life, rightly or wrongly. Exhibit A means just the beginning, and with that in mind it could refer to both Angry Robot’s new crime line and the first release from that crime line, ‘Scare Me’ by Richard Parker. Let’s take a look at the evidence.
“When did you last google yourself?”
Will Frost is asked this question inside the first four chapters. It’s a carefully worded linguistic knife, jabbed into the one crack in Will’s otherwise solid armor. He’s a loving husband and father, in excellent physical shape, financially successful and has no worries. Except that question cracks him open and Parker spends the next 300 plus pages showing us just how many problems Will Frost has, and how little notice he’s taken of any of them.
The first of these, the Exhibit A, is the website he’s directed to. At first, it shows photos of Will, his wife Carla and their home. Then, once Will has been sent photos proving his daughter Libby has been kidnapped whilst on holiday with her boyfriend, it changes to a street. Each house is clearly in a very different location, leading Will on a trek across the planet, following breadcrumbs cast by the woman gleefully murdering the inhabitants of the house and leading him towards Libby.
Will has stepped out of the traditional narrative of men like him into a Hitchcockian nightmare of flights, clock watching and always being seconds too late to prevent murder. It’s a brave choice, having your hero perennially behind the curve. Parker uses it not to berate us with how stupid Will is but to show the intelligence of his opponent. Poppy has planned everything meticulously and Will is constantly on the back foot and reacting exactly the way she wants him to. When Will finally takes the chance to gain an advantage, you’re unsure whether he’s being brilliant or stupid. The sense of danger is tangible, and Parker’s refusal to let Will out of his corner and get into the fight, a choice which could annoy, does nothing but make you read faster.
Will’s second problem is more subtle. Parker is brilliant with logistics, and at the exact moment you begin to wonder how Poppy is always a step ahead of Will, he gives you the answer. The first confrontation between the two is electric, especially as it takes place in mid-air en route to the next crime scene. It also serves to show just how deranged Poppy is; she’s both completely unsurprised Will has figured it out and mildly amused it’s taken him this long. Will is never, once, alone in the entire novel. Poppy is there every step of the way and the constant tension only heightens Will’s desperation. Will is a likeable, compelling hero but the assured, psychopathic Poppy is the character who sticks with you after the final chapter.
Will’s third problem is where things get interesting. Having been led by the nose, terrified and sleep deprived, through seven crime scenes that would make John Doe from Se7en applaud their artistry, he realizes he’s been noticed. A lot. The consequences of that lead to arguably the cleverest aspect of the book. Again, Parker has nerves of steel, holding to premise as long as possible and, at the last possible minute, expanding it. A local journalist, Pope, gets wind of Will’s presence through a combination of good luck and rock solid deductive thinking and his actions have an extraordinary effect on the story. Instead of reaching out to Will, he calls Will’s wife Carla, and negotiates. Pope is a man at the end of his run and this story is his last chance to hit it big. In the hands of a lesser author, Pope would be a cheap antagonist driven by ambition but in Parker’s hands he’s a principled, troubled man very aware he’s pushing his luck. Pope wants the story, but he has no intention of getting his hands dirty and that conflict gives the book an extra dimension that puts even more pressure on Will.
Will’s fourth problem is that sometimes the person who only wants to help only makes a horrible situation worse. Carla spends almost the entirety of the novel in Will’s office, running information searches for him where possible and providing a steadying influence when she can’t. These chapters are where Parker really goes to town as Carla’s spur of the moment lies about what’s going on gradually unravel as Will’s secretary and colleagues begin to suspect something is wrong. Carla is constantly trying to work out who’s done this to her family and her rolling threat assessment makes for some wonderfully paranoid reading. Parker also starts to build his end game here, with the events in the office combining with Pope’s plot line to not only place the action noir central plot in context but bring it into land. It’s massively confident writing, each twist completely logical and potentially devastating.
Will’s last problem brings him back to his first: he’s lying to himself. The life he’s built isn’t broken but it’s definitely cracked, and Parker uses the inconceivably horrible events of the kidnapping to peel back each layer. Will and Carla are both gifted, driven, decent people, but they’re also both hurting from their pasts. Parker drills down with meticulous precision to the core of this pain. Poppy’s victims may be tortured as they die but Parker tortures Will far more meticulously, stripping everything away until he sees not only how he’s been acting but the consequences. This type of twisted morality play is standard issue in this sort of story, but Parker uses it like a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer. Will is trapped in his way of thinking, and the events of the novel literally force him to think differently, to change his focus. The end result is ultimately positive, but paid for in blood.
The novel’s one potential problem is the laser-like focus on Will, mitigated by the sections dealing with Pope and Carla. Carla in particular is a strong presence in the novel, and Parker does an excellent job of subtly emphasizing how she and Will are equals. Similarly, the closing reveal, whilst potentially a disappointment after the build-up, is tragic and repulsive all at once and leads into the novel’s single, explosively violent confrontation which is exactly as bloody-toothed and frantic as it needs to be. There’s no clean action movie resolution here, only a desperate scrabble for survival that someone is required to lose.
Parker’s refusal to take the clean, easy route resonates through the entire novel, from the Pope and Carla storylines to the one following Tam. Tam is a small Thai child who, entirely by accident, discovers where Libby is being held. He has no idea who she is or why she’s there, and his gradual understanding of what’s going on is yet another example of Parker choosing the longer, more interesting road. Tam’s early sections leave you wondering why he’s there. By the end of the novel he’s not only a sympathetic character in his own right but Parker’s final, and best, salute to the fact that crime, like life, is untidy and that’s what not only makes it interesting, but gives us hope. Tam’s story may, initially, be hard work. Stick with it, the pay off and the very different world view are more than worth it.
For Will Frost, Exhibit A is a phone call asking when was the last time he googled himself. For Exhibit A Books, its ‘Scare Me’, a brutally simple, clean piece of crime fiction that refuses to let you go. It’s an excellent book and a phenomenal start for the imprint. Bring on Exhibit B.
Exhibit A can be found here
Richard can be found here