I’m not a fan of horror books, or movies for that matter, along the lines of those written by Stephen King. I’ve never understood how anyone can enjoy having the shit scared out of them or can find blood and gore being splattered all over the screen anything but repulsive. In fact, of the books along those lines that I’ve attempted to read I’ve found them to be dangerously perverse, close to pornographic, in the way the authors seem to revel in delving into the potential for sick and twisted behaviour among human beings. There’s far more exploitation, instead of exploration, of human psychological deformities in those I’ve read to give them any redeeming qualities in my eyes.
There’s enough genuine horror in the world we live in that I don’t need to read the inventions of anyone who takes pleasure in recreating them. According to the best seller lists I realize this reaction puts me in the minority as there seems to be a huge market for these exploitation thrillers. Thankfully that doesn’t mean there’s nothing in the genre that’s not worth reading and there aren’t some gems waiting to be uncovered amidst the dross if you dig around carefully enough. One of those is Rob Scott’s 15 Miles being published by Orion Books on August 19, 2010.
With its title taken from the old nursery rhyme of the same name (“From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton is fifteen miles/From Wibbleton to Wobbleton/From Wobbleton to Wibbleton/From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is fifteen miles”), a plot mixing together elements of police procedurals and thrillers with a dash of the supernatural and macabre thrown in for good measure, on the surface it appears no different from any other book in the genre. However, Scott takes the story to another level in the way he’s able to take a set of circumstances that is almost a cliché — an isolated farm house in Virginia complete with two corpses in various stages of decomposition, feral domestic cats, mysteriously dead live stock, and a missing person — and turn them into a means of exploring the effects of deep-seated guilt on an individual.
Officer Samuel “Sailor” Doyle of the Virginia State Police had been desperate for a transfer from the vice squad to homicide. Like so many other officers before him, exposure to the types of crime you deal with in vice — child pornography, for instance — has had its effect on him. Unfortunately in his case that includes a serious addiction to OxyContin and a heavy dependence on alcohol to help him cope with the pressures of the job. With a loving wife and two young kids at home he knows something has to change or he risks ruining the one good thing in his life. However, taking a mistress at the annual CID Christmas party isn’t what the doctor ordered, even if she is interning with the MD who serves as the department’s crime scene specialist. So when the switch to homicide comes through he convinces himself it’s the first step on his road to recovery.
However just how much further he has to travel down that particular road comes home to him with a resounding thud when the July 4th weekend and a visit from a Presidential hopeful leave the Virginia State Police stretched thin and Doyle has to head up the investigation surrounding two bodies found on a derelict farm. It’s his first time flying solo and he’s terrified of making the wrong decision, misreading the evidence or just fucking up in general. So he’s reaching for the OxyContin before he’s even on site in the hopes it will give him the confidence he lacks. I’ll leave it to your imagination to picture the scene he finds based on what I described in an earlier paragraph, only adding that once he manages to look beyond the rubble he uncovers a secret that might well explain how it came about.
Further complicating matters for Doyle is he begins to suffer from a series of audio hallucinations which take the form of messages from his sister who died years ago. What makes them doubly disconcerting is not only the fact that he’s hearing them, but they can happen in the middle of a conversation and they sound like they’re coming from the person talking to him. As we move deeper into the novel the story line involving Doyle’s sister becomes increasingly important to our understanding of his character and how he’s ended up in his current situation. Even more important is how Scott utilizes this plot line as the link between the supernatural and the rational. The memory and unconscious mind can play amazing tricks upon individuals, especially when stress, drugs, alcohol, and guilt are mixed together in as lethal a cocktail as they are in Doyle. However, as it’s only as Doyle starts to remember what happened that this becomes clear, there’s plenty of time for his horror and fear over the voices to build to near his breaking point.
In the midst of all that’s happening in his mind, Doyle is also doing his best to solve the mystery surrounding the two dead bodies in the farmhouse and the absence of their developmentally challenged adult daughter. Scott does an amazing job of not only balancing the plot lines of Doyle’s personal life and the case he’s investigating, but in establishing how the two become irrevocably linked in his main character’s mind. Doyle and his team must look beyond the horror of what they find at the crime scene in order to piece together what’s happened in much the same way he has to look beyond the mess he’s made of his personal life to see the root cause of his own problems.
While Doyle isn’t the most sympathetic of characters to begin with, over the course of the story we find ourselves not only hoping for him to succeed, but winning our grudging respect and actually caring what happens to him. As a result, whether or not he is able to solve the case becomes even more vitally important because of what he has invested in it personally. Somehow, if he’s able to find and save the missing daughter he will, in his own mind, be able to redeem himself for the death of his sister. With one blow Scott has not only provided motivation for his main character, he also manages to ramp up the tension over solving the case an extra notch or two. For not only is there a plot twist that makes finding the daughter take on an extra dimension of urgency, the attachment we’ve formed with Doyle makes us want desperately for him to find a way out of his personal hell.
In his previous work, The Eldarn Sequence, Scott showed his talent for creating believable characters in fantastic circumstances and a flair for multiple plot lines. In 15 Miles he has not only put those talents to excellent use with the creation of Samuel “Sailor” Doyle and his supporting cast and the way events in the book have been interwoven, his sense of pace and his feel for atmosphere make this a thriller of the highest quality. While the tension gradually rises throughout the book, Scott’s timing is such that just when you think it will be too much to bear he eases back ever so slightly, only to take your breath away when he ramps it up to a newer and higher level.
Unlike a roller coaster which has ups and downs, 15 Miles is a constant ascent, with occasional breaks on a plateau to regain your breath before moving on, spotted with occasional doubts about your ability to reach the top. With the macabre elements rooted in reality giving credence to everything that happens no matter how strange or outlandish they may be, this is as well crafted and intelligent a thriller as you’re liable to read this year. If you’re like me and have no taste for horror stories or so-called psychological thrillers which seem to exploit their circumstances in order for the author to produce some cheap thrills, 15 Miles will go a long way to restoring your faith that there are writers who actually care about what they produce.