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by Ben McPherson
William Morrow, September 2015
416 pages
ISBN: 0062406108

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Usually mysteries center on at least one or two characters who hold some kind of attraction for the reader. Not so in Ben McPherson's first novel A LINE OF BLOOD. At first the characters of Alex Mercer, his wife Millicent, and their son Max seem hard to get to know and a bit off, but we quickly tumble to the fact that they are way more than a bit off and this is what the central mystery is: who are these people and what makes them tick?

To say that the book is fascinating and hard to put down would be an understatement. I read the whole thing on a cross-country trip on airplanes and in the attendant stretches in airports.

Londoners Alex and pre-teen Max follow the family cat into the neighbor's yard trying to get it to come back home. Then they follow it into the neighbor's house (the first of many odd behaviors) where they discover to their horror the dead body of that neighbor, electrocuted in his bathtub. They back out of the house, go home, and Alex notifies the police. From there we begin a procedural that quickly fades into the background as first one and then another central character clearly becomes the main suspect in what is probably a murder.

Every step of the way, as the police wander in and out of the scene and do not share what they've learned, bits and pieces of Alex and Millicent's hidden pasts surface and their behavior as well as Max's becomes more dysfunctional and their reasoning further from what we would like to see. Another neighbor nearly dies. Attempted murder? Not attempted murder? Nobody knows, or rather no one who could tell is asked. Former relationships and shameful episodes in Alex and Millicent's lives keep coming to light, making the tangle increasingly snarled rather than more understandable. And this quite effectively heightens the suspense. There are so many plausible reasons for the neighbor to have been murdered and too many persons who could have wanted to do it.

There is not really a single normal human being in this tight little world and although the reader's suspicions about the murder often don't pan out, the overriding suspicion that everything is just too, too contrived definitely does. In the mounding up of coincidentally linked pasts and reasons to hide them, McPherson just goes over the top.

Then the ending seems to be a total dud. Or is it?

Underlying the tissue of the small cast of characters and their self-absorbed motivations and interactions lies something much more frightening than the superficial murder mystery: a close look at people who appear to be a gathering of sociopaths. They move gradually from a sort of mindless self-gratification to recoiling suddenly because something very wrong has happened. That they recognize that right and wrong exist is a step up but they are so programmed by their habits of lying and covering up that their every instinct is automatically fearfully defensive and morally thoughtless, if not intentionally destructive.

If indeed all art reflects upon what it means to be human, McPherson has chosen a particularly dark mirror but very probably a true one.

Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, September 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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