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Book Review: Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross

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As Neil Cross points out in the acknowledgements at the end of his new novel Luther: The Calling, a prequel to his hugely successful BBC series Luther, in the usual sequencing of these things the novel would beget the series. In this case it is the TV series that did the begetting. The novel takes the reader through the opening scenes of the series premiere. With that in mind let me begin by suggesting that anyone who has yet seen the opening episode of the series should forgo that pleasure, and it is a pleasure, until they have read this prequel. As for those who have already made their way through that first episode and the rest of the series’ two seasons, the ending of the novel will lose some of its climactic impact, but the insights into character and motivation will make up for it. Besides, if you’re already a John Luther fan, you will more than welcome the back story the prequel provides.

Luther: The Calling is a crisply told thriller that focuses on the darkest depths of human behavior and its effects on the lives and psyches of those who have to deal with it. The plot concerns a psychotic serial killer’s massacre of a pregnant woman and her husband to steal their unborn child. It reeks with ugly violence graphically portrayed. It follows DCI Luther as he breaks every rule in the book in pursuit of the killer. It introduces nearly all of the major characters that people the series and clarifies relationships.

John Luther is the kind of tormented soul who fills the page the way Idris Elba who plays him on TV fills the screen. He makes quick judgments, and he acts with complete faith in his judgments. If he is in torment, it is over the evils he is forced to deal with, and what he feels compelled to do to put an end to those evils. It makes things difficult for his colleagues; it makes things impossible for his wife. But his actions must always be judged in the context of the nightmare crimes he faces. It is always a question of ends and means. Of course, once you’ve watched Elba’s performance, indeed the performances of all the actors in the series, it can’t help but inform your imagination as you read.

While some readers may find the detective’s certainties based less on actual evidence than on gut feeling something of a stretch, Cross manages to bring it off. When Luther says he knows where the killer has hidden the body, even if we don’t quite know how he figured it out, or even when we do know, but the evidence seems a bit flimsy, his colleagues are willing to follow his lead, and so are we. He has that impressive commanding self assurance that sweeps away question and dissent. Besides if and when there is dissent, he pays no attention anyway. He acts; he does what he thinks necessary at the time, and ‘damn the torpedoes.’

Cross has created a character of mythic proportions and happily he will be back. Luther is slated for a third TV season in 2013. Even more happily, Luther: The Calling promises more novels to come.

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