- Hideout, by Jack Heath. Allen & Unwin. $29.99.
Jack Heath has pulled off the remarkable feat of making a cannibal (anti-)hero the centre of a novel, and making him relatively likeable.
The "relatively" refers to most of the other characters in Hideout, who are even more twisted than Timothy Blake, with his liking for human flesh.
Many will still think of Jack Heath as an author who writes primarily for children, despite Hideout being the third thriller to feature Blake (after Hangman and Hunted). Certainly, Heath is very well known as a children's author; two of his books were listed as notables by the Children's Book Council of Australia in 2016, for example.
It is probably because of this that the novel under review has a warning appearing in the author description: "It is unsuitable for children, and some adults". Any careless parent who buys the book for a child advanced in reading may face interesting questions about torture porn and the taste of human flesh.
Blake arrives at a country house with a hammer, intending to kill a man who lives there.
He is dismayed to find that there are actually more people in the house, and a number locked in an external building. The prisoners are tortured by the inhabitants of the house, and this is filmed.
The resulting images are sent out to subscribers around the world. The torture is justified by those committing it on the basis that the subjects are evil - paedophiles, rapists, KKK members and the like.
This is undoubtedly grim stuff, but readers may be surprised to find themselves laughing at many moments in the book.
For example, the assembled torturers are vegetarian. Blake, who is using a fake identity, inadvertently admits that he is not a vegetarian, but quickly makes up for this by saying that he only eats fish.
One of the group of torturers earnestly notes that "the environmental impact of fishing isn't nearly as bad as raising cattle or pigs".
The knowledge of what Blake actually eats, and the juxtaposition between the captives in slaughterhouse previously used for animals (and now for people), and the torturers' fastidiousness made me laugh, and also feel guilty for laughing.
There is also some deliberately pretentious poetry in the book, which raised a less repressed laugh.
There is a lot of blood in this novel; this is far from a traditional country house mystery.
The dialogue is believable, the growing tension is produced with great expertise, and the resolution will appease the appetite of the most avid thriller lover.
There are elements of the gum-shoe detective here, with guns and analysis of footprints, but perhaps a better name would be grue-shoe, as being shot is really the least of the problems that people face in Hideout.
That old stalwart of dislike between the FBI and the CIA plays a part in the novel. Blake has worked as an FBI consultant, being paid in the bodies of the executed.
Love, of the largely unrequited kind, is an important element of the book, as are the possibilities of hidden family connections.
An attic contains a secret. Bodies are exhumed. Blake struggles to maintain the illusion that he is someone else, someone more truly evil, as he simultaneously fights to control his cannibal urges.
We are used to detectives battling their inner demons. Harry Bosch springs to mind, or any number of dour Scandinavian detectives who are divorced and tend towards the over-consumption of alcohol.
Here we have an investigator who externalises his destructive urges, but who also goes out of his way to save people.
Whereas there have been other cannibal investigators, Hannibal Lecter being the most famous, it is to Heath's credit that he has managed to create such an (at times) likeable individual.
Blake labours under no illusion that he is deeply flawed. Questions of morality do run through the book, and the distinction between good and evil is often skin-deep.
An interesting feature of Hideout is that each chapter begins with a riddle (the protagonist, Blake, has previously made some money solving riddles for people).
An example, the epigraph to Chapter 28, is one of the easiest: "She's sweet, refined and always full of energy. People love her, but she kills them. Who is she?"
I could not work out some of the riddles, but other readers may be more adept, and this inability to figure them out detracted in no way from the flow of the book.
Canberran Jack Heath is an immensely talented and accomplished writer, and Hideout's engaging prose and twists and turns will keep any reader chained to the book for the full 400 pages.
Any reader, that is, with a reasonably strong stomach.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier