Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One strategy authors of psychological thrillers sometimes use is to raise doubts about whether
characters are what they seem to be. That doubt about who can be trusted can add layers of suspense to a story, and can add to the tension. Let’s take a look at how that works today and turn the spotlight on Lisa Unger’s In the Blood.
Lana Granger is about to graduate university with a degree in psychology. She’s not exactly sure what her next steps will be, although she does know she doesn’t want the ‘nine to five’ routine. The other thing she knows is that she needs to find a job. She gets an opportunity when her mentor Langdon Hewes suggests she apply for a position as after-school nanny to eleven-year-old Luke Kahn. Lana doesn’t have experience as a nanny, but at her tutor’s urging, she calls the number listed in the advertisement and goes to the Kahn home for an interview.
Luke’s mother Rachel outline’s Lana’s duties. Luke has severe emotional and social problems, and Rachel has a great deal of difficulty managing him. Still, she tries to make the best of this after-school position, and Lana accepts the job.
From the beginning, Lana has concerns about her charge. He is highly intelligent – even brilliant – but he soon shows that he is also very troubled. It’s not clear, at least to Lana, whether he is simply an extremely bright boy who is bored, whether he’s the unfortunate victim of some hidden abuse, or whether he’s dangerously disturbed. He’s been in and out of several schools, including special schools for what used to be called ‘troubled children.’ And it’s not long before Lana suspects that he may be trying to manipulate her.
Rachel doesn’t prove to be much help in the matter. She seems to be resigned to Luke; her attitude is more of ‘putting out fires’ than proactive solutions. In fact, she’s visibly relieved whenever Lana reports that things have gone well. As she interacts with Rachel, Lana begins to wonder whether she is in permanent denial, whether she’s an enabler, or whether she is hiding what may be her own role in Luke’s problems.
Then one terrible night, Lana’s friend and roommate Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller disappears. When Beck’s parents report her missing, the police begin an investigation that includes interviews with Lana and the young women’s other roommate Ainsley. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to Beck, but the more evidence the police get, the clearer it is that Lana knows more than she is saying. It’s just as clear that Luke is very much ‘tuned in’ to the investigation and to Lana’s reaction to it, and that he may be using what he knows and suspects to manipulate Lana even further. Bit by bit, we learn exactly what happened to Beck, and how it relates to the Kahn family and to a very dark secret in Lana’s past.
From the beginning, there are doubts about who is reliable and can be trusted, and who isn’t. Is Rachel the long-suffering mother of a troubled child, as she seems? Is she abusive? And what about Luke? Lana, too, may not be what she seems. She has a very dark history that plays a role in the novel; since she is the narrator, there’s also the element of the unreliable narrator in this novel. As the story unfolds, we learn little by little who all of these characters really are. Readers who enjoy novels that slowly ‘peel away’ surface levels of characters’ histories will be pleased at this aspect of the novel.
Another element in the novel is the depiction of what it’s like to parent a child with, particularly, emotional/psychological special needs. Like any parent of such a child, Rachel is overextended, exhausted and anxious. She’s tried any number of approaches, schools and the like to try to help her son, and now has to face the possibility that he may never be what most of us would call ‘well.’ She also has to cope with others’ judgements about her decisions. The question of whether Rachel is right or wrong in the way she manages her life and Luke’s is not an easy one. The choices that parents in this situation face are grim, and Unger makes that clear.
The solution to this puzzle – what ties all of the characters together – is not a straightforward one. Readers who prefer not to suspend very much disbelief will notice this. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that it’s not a supernatural or paranormal solution.
This is a story of psychological suspense, so while there is violence, the tension isn’t built through, say, a grim series of discoveries of bodies. Readers who dislike a lot of brutal violence will be pleased to know this novel doesn’t depend on that. That said though, this is not a light, easy novel. There is deep, deep sadness and darkness in some of these characters’ lives. Even though we learn what’s behind the events in the novel, that doesn’t really make the darkness go away, if I may put it like that.
The story is told, for the most part, from Lana’s perspective. Although she narrates the events accurately, that doesn’t mean she is necessarily a completely reliable narrator. And one aspect of the suspense in the novel comes from the question of what she may not be telling the reader.
Interspersed throughout the novel is also a set of journal entries. The reader isn’t told until late in the story who is keeping the journal, but it’s distinct from Lana’s narrative. Readers who do not like novels where the killer’s perspective is given in italics need have no fear, though. This is not a novel in which a mad serial killer goes after victims. At the same time, readers who prefer their stories be told from one perspective will notice this strategy.
In the Blood is the story of soon-to-be university graduate with a very dark, hidden secret who is thrust into a potentially very dangerous situation. It features characters who may be exactly what they seem – or may not – and shows the powerful effects of the past on people’s lives. But what’s your view? Have you read In the Blood? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 1 June/Tuesday 2 June – The Water Rat of Wanchai – Ian Hamilton
Monday 8 June/Tuesday 9 June – The Golden Slipper and Other Problems for Violet Strange – Anna Katherine Green
Monday 15 June/Tuesday 16 June – The Harbour Master – Daniel Pembrey