The Death List
by Paul Johnston
Review by Gayle Surrette
Mira Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780778324812
Date: 01 July 2007 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Matt Wells thinks he may have hit bottom: his publisher and agent have dropped him, he's suffering from writer's block, the freelance market for his music reviews is drying up, and his wife divorced him. On the bright side, he's got a new girlfriend, Sarah, a journalist who's smart, sexy, and driven -- much like his ex. He lives close enough to his ex to walk their daughter Lucy to and from school though he's not sure how he'll meet the next rent payment. But instead of looking up when a fan, WD, drops £5,000 through his mail slot, things get complicated, dangerous, and Matt finds that the bottom is much further down than he ever believed possible.
WD or White Devil needs someone to write his story and he's decided that Matt is just the writer he needs. By threatening to kill those Matt cares for and demonstrating his ability to carry out his threats, Matt feels that he has no choice but to start the book by writing up the material sent by WD. This material, detailed notes on the murders that WD has already performed, shows not a man but a monster who relishes his ability to take revenge on any who insult him or stand in his way. When WD starts to add to his list of kills using methods from Matt's crime novels and leaving quotations from John Webster's The White Devil, Matt realizes that he's being framed and something must be done to protect his family, friends, and life.
Francis Bacon in "Of Revenge" said, "Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out." If justice was indeed swift and sure there would probably be no need for anyone to think of revenge whether served cold or sweet. At first Matt Wells can see that WD is not simply taking revenge but dispensing a justice he was denied. Yet, in other cases, death seems a steep price to pay for the crime. Then WD begins to dispense revenge for wrongs against Wells, drawing the police to look at Matt Wells as the killer.
The reader is drawn in, caught in the web of lies, misinformation, and misdirection, emotion and fear -- there's nothing to do but to keep reading. Matt Wells is an everyman. He's a writer but at heart, he's just an average Joe with all the problems of anyone worried about meeting the next set of bills and maintaining the status quo. What can he do to protect his loved one when WD anticipates his every move? What would anyone do in his situation? The 'what ifs' keep you reading.
There's enough twists and turns to this plot to keep you guessing until the last few pages. You can't even be sure that what you read is what is there, because while the narrative point of view seems to put you in a place to know what is going on, it doesn't tell actually show you all that is going on, or does it...
Johnston manages to keep the tension high while moving the plot forward. There are flashback to the childhood of the White Devil that are intersperse with the present day to fill in the back-story. The various threads of the story converge and diverge as the narrative moves from one group to the next but this is handled so smoothly that I didn't get the urge to flip ahead to the "real" story that this technique often tempts me to do when done less deftly by other writers.
Some people may find the description of the death scenes too graphic but even here most of the description is actually in your own imagination and not on the page. But what is there is enough to upset some readers so consider yourself warned.
Even when you finished the story, the 'what ifs' will continue to haunt the reader, especially the what would I do in this situation.