Short Take: So much book, so little story.
I think I need to stop reading “best of” lists. Last time I was jonesing for something really good to read, I started googling “psychological thrillers” to see if there were any great authors out there I was missing out on. Lo and behold, I found a huge list, hundreds of books that all looked really good, many by authors I had never tried. I narrowed it down to about 25 or so that looked like the most fun, and dove in. Nightmare, With Angel was my second one, and I am starting to think that the list writer never actually read the books they recommended.
Nightmare, With Angel (why does that comma in the title annoy me so much?) started to go down some interestingly dark paths, but consistently stopped short. I don’t generally seek out mystery/horror novels just to read drawn-out descriptions of murder or torture or whatever, but I think that if you’re going to introduce the elements of murder or some kind of sadism into a story, you should at least explain what happened. Especially if the book is over 600 pages.
The entire book can be summed up in just a few sentences. I’ll avoid spoilers (even though everything is pretty telegraphed). Ten-year-old Marianne lives with her father (Patrick) along the English coast. Patrick’s days are spent trying and mostly failing to build a business that will support them. He doesn’t care to spend too much time with his daughter, anyway. Marianne spends most of her non-school time exploring the beach with her dog Rudi.
One day, Marianne and Rudi are exploring a sandbar when the tide comes in, stranding them and putting their lives in jeopardy. The local junk-picker, Ryan, happens to wander by, and rescues them.
Ryan has A Secret Past, and so he tries to avoid Marianne, as he doesn’t want to be accused of anything. But when things finally come to an ugly head with Patrick, she persuades Ryan to help her find her mother in Germany. What follows is a long, drawn-out chase that takes place all over Germany. Jennifer, an English police officer trying to make her way up the ranks, and Patrick, who suddenly realizes that Marianne is pretty much all he has, both go to Germany and join the police there in the hunt.
There are some revelations, some interesting twists, but Stephen Gallagher just couldn’t commit. We learn that Marianne’s mother, Anneliese, was involved in some pretty twisted stuff, but we never really get into her head to see how she got from point A to point WTF. Apparently, Ryan was accused of murder, and spent quite a few years in an institution, but we never get his explanation of what transpired, and never know for sure if he was the killer. There’s also a human trafficking subplot that adds almost nothing to the story.
There’s little to no tension in the chase. Ryan keeps Marianne safe from all of the horrors that might befall a young girl on her own.
The characters were also just bad. Marianne is precocious almost to the point of absurdity. Not only is she able to dig through her father’s private papers to figure out where to start the search for her mother, she’s also able to out-think virtually every adult around her. She makes plans that are pretty meticulous, but when she has trouble meeting up with her mother, it never occurs to her to look for other relatives she remembers.
Her father, Patrick, is a first-class a-hole. The minute he finds out that his wife is involved in something that he doesn’t understand and can’t accept, he grabs Marianne from school and leaves the country with her. No trying to talk to his wife to find out what is going on exactly, if she was being coerced or forced in some way, no trying to get her away from these awful things. Nope, just take the kid, run, and proceed to neglect the kid for years on end. He nurtures his grudge far more carefully than his daughter.
I think we’re supposed to think that Ryan is some kind of saint who just really really wants to atone for his past mistakes, but he lets a ten year old talk him into running away to another country. He then spends weeks on the run with her – despite his frequent indications that he only has her best interests at heart. He’s resourceful enough to get information from seemingly impossible situations when the plot calls for it, but not enough to make sure they have a decent place to sleep or enough food.
Nightmare, With Angel seemed to be trying to be about a broken family that goes through a crisis and is able to heal itself, but all I could think when reading it was that all of these people would be much better off if they just stayed far, far away from each other.
The Nerd’s Rating: ONE HAPPY NEURON