Every so often, mixed in with the invitations to buy viagra or participate in a Nigerian bankfraud, I receive spam asking me to pass on some pearl of wisdom or other to 10 friends in my contact list. Accompanying the invitation, there is usually an ominous threat that runs along the lines of, "If you do not pass this on, then your luck will run dry and your first born will grow up to be a Tottenham fan". And I either completely ignore the email or delete it without giving it a second thought.
But how might I react if the email threat read: "Forward this email to 10 friends. Each of those friends must forward it to 10 friends. Maybe one of those friends will be one of my friends. If this email ends up in my inbox within a week, I won't slit the bitch's throat. Can you afford not to send this on to 10 friends?"
And so the starting point of Richard Parker's debut novel, Stop Me, is this very modern twist on an ancient dilemma. Get involved or not? In this case the dilemma is being set by the Vacation Killer, a serial killer who has apparently brought his novel and interactive approach to murder across the ocean from the United States, where he committed his first murders, and into the UK.
Leo Sharpe receives just such an email. He phones IT and asks what to do with it and they tell him to delete it. 10 days later the victim is confirmed as dead. The next time Leo receives such an email, it is his wife Laura who is the subject of the killer's deadly game of brinkmanship. But when 10 days pass without confirmation either of Laura's death or survival, Leo is left in a devastating limbo.
Stop Me is an ambitious first novel. Leo's search, passive at first, transatlantic later, takes him from the very depths of the internet conspiracy theories trenches through acute depression and emotional paralysis, and eventually to New Orleans and Montana (a combination of locations that made me wonder if they were not a homage to James Lee Burke). The narrative picks up pace with events as Leo finds a way out of his gloom and into a desperate lat attempt to find Laura.
The book is not without flaws. The writing gets a little ragged around the edges at times, almost suggesting an impatience in the author to keep things moving quickly - no crime there, as Parker's story never gets bogged down - and on a couple of occasions I wasn't quite sure that the actions of characters made a lot of sense.
But there is also a tension and emotion about it that was both compelling and haunting. Leo's management of his uncertainty and grief is powerfully told and his defence mechanisms against both hope and despair were painfully realistic. The story-telling is also excellent, with Parker maintaining mystery and suspense into the final dramatic chapters.
And I found myself thinking about Leo and his troubles at the oddest moments and I was gripped pretty much from first to last - getting very annoyed with myself when I went away for a couple of nights, forgetting to take the book with me. The email plot device should prove very effective at drawing readers in while Leo's struggles will hold their attention.
Overall, a very promising debut and a great read.