George Orwell wrote, on the subject of Salvador Dali's autobiography: ”It should be possible to say, 'This is a good book... and it ought to be burned by the public hangman'”. Signature Kill by David Levien is such a book. To read it, you need a strong stomach. For vomitable gruesomeness, Levien easily outdoes The Silence of the Lambs and American Psycho. Some people will undoubtedly regard this as a recommendation.
- David Levien
Firstly, the positives: David Levien is an excellent writer. He has already written another critically-acclaimed crime novel, City of the Sun. He is an established Hollywood screenwriter and director. Probably as a result, he is brilliant at dialogue, characterisation and atmosphere. His films include Ocean's Thirteen and Runaway Jury. Discerning fellow crime-writers and competitors, including Harlan Coben and Lee Child, think highly of him. I have given the book four mushroom-heads; some might say that it deserves five, for technical brilliance.
The hero of City of the Sun, Frank Behr, a tough, embittered ex-cop who is now a private investigator, with one marriage over and the current one under strain continues his career of solving very complicated crimes in Signature Kill. The scene is Indianapolis, a nondescript, superficially normal Mid-Western city, seething under the surface with drug-trading, prostitution and other organised crime. Normality has however been shattered by the activities of a psychopathic murderer who targets beautiful young women, gleefully abducting, torturing, murdering and dissecting them. He then arranges their de-constructed remains in public places as macabre “still lives”. Behr becomes involved because he needs the large financial reward offered by the family of one of the victims for the murderer's detection. He becomes emotionally involved, both with the quest and with another investigator, who becomes his sexually-demanding mistress. I will not spoil readers' pleasure by summarising the complicated process by which Behr solves the mystery, captures and deals (nastily) with the villain.
Now the negatives: Apart from the gloating and lengthy descriptions of the victims' last days and hours, and the decay of their remains after the murderer finally kills them, Levien seems to enter – successfully and with enormous empathy - into the mental processes of the psychopathic killer, Hardy Abler, who is, like Indianapolis itself, superficially normal and respectable. Abler does not think of himself as a criminal but as a kind of artist: A professional photographer, whom Abler later mutilates, considers that photos that he takes of his victims' remains have genuine artistic merit. Abler is incapable of empathy with anyone. He does not accept moral responsibility for his crimes: “The urge” comes upon him and he cannot – or does not – resist it; his alter ego “the Other”, not him, is responsible. He shows no remorse. He tells one of his victims “You have to take it... Call it your punishment if you want, or just your lot”. Hannibal Lecter is erudite, civilised and loveable by comparison.
None of the above will stop the novel from enjoying commercial success; no doubt it has already been optioned for filming. By all means read and enjoy it, but keep a sick-bag within easy reach, just in case.