Book review: Face of the Devil by N J Cooper

Face of the Devil
by N J Cooper
Simon & Schuster, 2011
Karen Taylor #3

Face of the Devil varies the formula established in the first two books in this series (No Escape and Lifeblood) so that new readers can easily start here. Karen Taylor is an academic psychologist at the University of Southampton, but this environment is not a feature in this book, apart from one or two minor appearances by her tiresome boss, Max. More to the point, perhaps, Karen’s second career as a consultant to the police has hitherto been to make assessments of convicted offenders. This plot device is abandoned here and instead, Karen is asked to provide psychological insight about a young teenager, Olly, who seems to have stabbed to death another teenager, Suzie, thinking that he is protecting her from the devil.

Suzie is the 15-year-old niece of Giles Henty, a rich stockbroker from London who has taken early retirement and now lives on the Isle of Wight. His yacht is moored in the harbour in Cowes, and Suzie is murdered on her way to board the boat for a ride home, presumably by Olly who is found crying over the body with a bloody knife in his hand. The situation is complicated for the reader, if not yet for the police, because a young runaway, Billy, is hanging around the harbour when the murder occurs, and is in some way involved.

Karen is a no-nonsense woman who not only makes an assessment of Olly’s state of mind in short order, but who also feels compelled to solve the crime at the motivational level, even though the attitude of the police differs. She becomes involved with the families of the victim, of Billy the runaway, and of the presumed perpetrator, as well as with Olly’s psychiatrist, who is vilified by most islanders for his policy of not using drugs in his treatment, which is widely held to have caused the boy to snap.

Karen’s psychological perspectives of the events and people who fill the novel are delivered with certainty and are a cause of some irritation to alpha-male DI Charlie Trench, the policeman in charge of the case and the man who initially called in Karen. There is a lot of attraction between the two, but Karen is engaged to another man and Charlie is even more autocratic and irascible with her here than in previous novels. In some respects, Karen’s role in the book is fascinating, as she is the mouthpiece for the author’s research on mental illness, its causes and treatment. On the other hand, her assurance that what is delivered in a scientific paper or textbook is directly translatable into individuals’ behaviour is oversimplistic and too pedagogical, particularly in the sections near the end concerning various forms of sibling rivalry and jealousy. The psychological parts of the plot are, however, more satisfying than the police investigation of the crime(s), which seems somewhat cursory, perhaps partly because most of it happens offstage apart from when Karen is involved in one of the rather too many coincidental crises that pepper the second half of the book.

Face of the Devil is a solidly plotted novel with a fast-paced second half if a rather too slow first half. Karen is still torn between her feelings for her boyfriend Will and for Charlie, though Will is increasingly the voice of reason whereas Charlie is becoming less sympathetic towards Karen, so the indications are that the triangle will be less of an issue in future. As the book ends, Karen’s new house is about to be built, so it remains to be seen whether her future lies in Southampton or on the island, or if she will continue to oscillate between the two, professionally and personally.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews of Face of the Devil: Euro Crime (Lizzie Hayes), Bookgeeks (Mike Stafford) and Crime Time.

My reviews of the two previous books in the series: No Escape (#1) and Lifeblood (#2).