A Simple Act of Violence is a book of two parallel stories, with the link between the two clear from the outset. In Washington DC a woman called Catherine Sheridan is killed. Police, in the form of Detective Robert Miller and his partner Al Roth, believe she is the fourth victim of a serial killer known as ‘The Ribbon Killer’. The second story thread is told from the perspective of the person we are to assume is the killer, a man named John Robey. In a series of (long-winded) chapters he talks about being recruited to the CIA and his his work for them in Nicaragua and other hot spots. One of his fellow CIA agents was Catherine Sheridan.
This book recently won the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year for being among other things ‘fascinating and surprising’. Do you ever wonder if you’ve read a different book from the one others are talking about? That’s how I feel about A Simple Act of Violence because I found it about as fascinating and surprising as breakfast.
In audio format the book is nearly 19 hours long (500+ pages in its printed versions) but there is a startling lack of action for such a long tome. As far as the serial killer thread goes most of the victims are already dead by the time the book starts and we spend a chunk of time following Miller and his precinct buddies as they wander aimlessly down one dead-end after another. The few plot developments that do occur are telegraphed so far in advance that by the time they finally happen you think you’ve already read that portion of the book.
The traditional narrative chapters are interspersed with chapters where John Robey tells us everything wrong with American foreign policy from the 1980’s onwards. I’ve read text books that were more compelling than these parts of the book. Not only is the content old news, effectively a re-hashing of the Iran-Contra affair and events surrounding American’s involvement in Nicaragua, but the story-telling method is dull and unbelievable. In my experience people do not lecture each other in day-to-day life but in John Robey’s experience everyone he met pontificated or lectured about something. Including people he was about to kill. Real people do not have the kinds of conversations that happened repeatedly during this book. It reminded me of those TV police dramas where two professionals who would both know exactly why a test is being conducted and what it will or won’t prove nevertheless explain the whole procedure to each other in words of two syllables or less because the writers can’t work out any other way to let viewers know what is going on.
To top it off there wasn’t a single interesting character in the book. Miller is an unmarried cop who’s had a nasty experience where his credibility was questioned. Ho hum. He wasn’t an alcoholic but most other cliché’s were covered. His sleepless nights, friendless days and obsession with a single case have all been done before and there was no new angle or character depth here to make me care whether he got some sleep, made a friend or found the killer. Nobody else, including the pontificating Robey, was any more engaging or believable to me.
In the end it felt to me as if this book didn’t know what it wanted to be. It didn’t have enough pace or twists to be an old-fashioned thriller, nor did it have enough heart to be a political exposé pitting one man against his government. I wish I’d read a “fast-paced thriller, each page…[bringing] about a new twist…” but I read a slow and largely predictable novel about people I will not be able to remember this time next week.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
My rating 2/5
Narrator Alan Nebelthau; Publisher Whole Story Audio Books ; Length 18hours 40 minutes
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Clearly I’m in the minority with regards to my views on this book so do check out other reviews including the one at Material Witness