Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin series has become very highly regarded as a strong set of psychological thrillers. It’s about time one of his novels was spotlighted on this feature, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on The Suspect, the first Joe O’Loughlin novel.
The novel begins as O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist, persuades a suicidal teenager not to jump from the roof of the Royal Marsden Hospital. He gets a lot of press (which doesn’t really please him), but does the best he can to simply get back to the business of his daily life. This particular weekend, that involves a visit to Kensal Green Cemetery, where his Grand-Aunt Gracie is buried. While O’Loughlin and his family are at the cemetery, they see police lifting a body from the Grand Union Canal.
Shortly afterwards, he addresses a group of prostitutes about ways to stay safe when they’re working the streets. The meeting is interrupted by DI Vincent Ruiz of the Met, who announces that police have discovered the body of an unknown young woman, believed to be a prostitute, near the Grand Union Canal. O’Loughlin is sure it’s the same incident he and his family witnessed, and after a short conversation, Ruiz persuades him to see if he can identify the body or tell the police anything about what might have happened to the woman. Reluctantly O’Loughlin agrees.
As it turns out, the dead woman is a nurse and former client Catherine McBride. It piques Ruiz’ interest that O’Loughlin knew the victim and that he happened to be on the scene when the police recovered the body. In fact, the more Ruiz finds out about Catherine, the more he begins to suspect that O’Loughlin may know more about her murder than he’s letting on.
For his part, O’Loughlin begins to have his own suspicions about the murder. Ruiz doesn’t much trust O’Loughlin, but he does follow up on what O’Loughlin thinks. Then there’s another murder – one which very much implicates O’Loughlin. As if that weren’t enough, the leads he gave Ruiz don’t seem to pan out. Now it’s clear that someone is trying to set O’Loughlin up. The more he tries to find out who might be responsible, the more circumstantial evidence there is against him.
If O’Loughlin is to find out the truth about this case, and bring back some semblance of order into his own life, he’s going to have to go after a very dangerous killer. In the end, it takes a virtual trip to the past, and all of O’Loughlin’s clinical skills, to find out who the killer is and what has motivated everything.
O’Loughlin is a psychologist, so we follow along, especially at the beginning of the novel, as he works with clients, follows up with case notes, and so on. We also witness some of his clinical sessions as well as some of the other work he does. O’Loughlin uses his contacts in the field, his knowledge of how the mental health system works, and his own experiences to slowly draw the threads of this case together.
At the same time, Ruiz is also trying to find out who killed Catherine McBride as well as who is behind the other events. So while you couldn’t really call this a police procedural, the story does give readers a look at the way the Met pursues a case such as this one. Ruiz and his team gather evidence, talk to witnesses and suspects, look at records, and put the facts together as best they can.
This series is often called a ‘thriller’ series, and that makes sense. In this novel, the pace is fast and there are several twists and turns in the plot. There is also a slow revelation of the truth that adds layers of suspense. What’s more, there is a ‘thriller-like’ sense of urgency as O’Loughlin and Ruiz go after a very dangerous person.
That said though, the story isn’t all about ‘the chase.’ We also get a strong sense of O’Loughlin’s home life. He is happily married to Julianne, and the proud and loving father of their daughter Charlie. That doesn’t mean though that there are no complications. He’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and this of course changes all of the plans he and his family had. It has profound effects on everyone. And although he and Julianne love each other, that doesn’t mean that either is perfect by any means.
Readers also get a sense of O’Loughlin’s backstory in this novel. For instance, he decided to go into psychology because of his Grand-Aunt Gracie and her lifelong struggle with agoraphobia. Throughout the novel, we learn other things about his personal history – things that are woven into the fabric of the story.
And this leads to the way the story is told. The main events of the story are told in the present tense, from O’Loughlin’s point of view. The ‘flashback’ events are told in the past tense. Readers who prefer only one tense and one time frame will notice this. That said though, it’s clear throughout the novel when different things happen and what’s going on at any given point.
Another important element in the story is the relationship between O’Loughlin and Ruiz. On the one hand, each knows the other has valuable knowledge. On the other hand, neither man trusts the other. And matters don’t get any better as the novel goes on. So they are definitely not friends or even really team-mates. But at the same time, they are also not really enemies. They’re going after the same killer, and each in the end finds that he needs the other. It’s an interesting relationship, and fans of the series will know that it evolves as the series progresses.
The setting for most of the story is London, and Robotham places the reader there distinctly:
‘Finding a rhythm to my stride, I weave my way through Covent Garden, past the restaurants and expensive boutiques. Reaching the Strand, I turn left and follow Fleet Street until the gothic facade of the Old Bailey comes into view.
And as the search for the killer goes on, we see some of the parts of London that tourists don’t always get to see.
The Suspect is the story of how past events can have tragic consequences even years later. The history behind the events of the story is very, very sad; readers who prefer lighter crime fiction will notice this. And awful damage is done to more than one life. But we also get the sense that life will go on. The novel takes place in a distinctive setting and features two very different ‘lead characters’ who have to find some way of working together to find out the truth. But what’s your view? Have you read The Suspect? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 10 November/Tuesday 11 November – A Duty to the Dead – Charles Todd
Monday 17 November/Tuesday 18 November – The House Without a Key – Earl Der Biggers
Monday 24 November/Tuesday 25 November – The Suspect – L.R. Wright