Beyond the Whodunit
This was originally a review of Michelle Angharad Pashley's The Killer Within on Amazon (posted 31 October 2022), but for some unexplained reason, Amazon removed all of my reviews from their website. Although this is their right, it is frustrating, and I have chosen to repost this one on my website (with some minor updates to the prose). tldr: it is an excellent book.
In an interview with fellow novelist Terry Melia, describing Madeline Driscoll (the protagonist of her crime novel series), Michelle Angharad Pashley notes the similarities with herself, “She is very blunt. She says what she thinks.” The Killer Within pits Madeline against perhaps her most sinister antagonist yet, an equally blunt serial killer driven by their own unfathomable method. And it is in the contrast, but also similarity, between Madeline and the murderer that so much of the narrative tension and fascination of this police procedural derives.
G. K. Chesterton once insisted, “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Madeline has more than just her reason intact, but throughout the series tends to subordinate her other attachments to her investigative method; the killer, similarly, preserves his other attachments but subordinates them to the ritual logic of his murders. Some of the best crime fiction rivalries (consider the archetypal example of Holmes and Moriarty) share this sense of two methodical obsessives, focused singularly on their goals.
As well as the antagonist, there is another digression from the norm of Pashley’s earlier novels in the same series. (A digression was also discussed in the author’s interview with Melia.) We learn the identity of the killer before Madeline and the other investigators do; not quite the extent of the formula for the classic example of this narrative conceit, Columbo, but nonetheless, early enough in the story that the focus is less on the whodunit mystery and more about the tensions and suspense of how—and even whether—the perpetrator will be caught.
This tension aptly enables Pashley to zero in on the core dynamic between Madeline and her criminal quarry. In previous reviews for Pashley’s other crime titles, I focused on the way in which she uses the crime genre to examine ruptures in human relationships and how these distort but also make visible the importance of human relationality. This theme is apparent in the latest book, too.
However, it is addressed from a much darker place because the motive force of the book already assumes a deeper breakdown of empathy and interpersonal connections. With her killer in this book, Pashley is interrogating what happens when our ability to make bonds appears to have catastrophically, and even inexplicably, failed from as far back as anyone can recall. It is explored, however, with Pashley’s typical humanity and depth of character observation.
The killer might be her most absolutely evil character so far, but nuances are more than apparent in the moral failings and triumphs of those around him. And in so doing, we get a sense of the human, and quite firmly ethical, the core of Madeline. A profound and highly social integrity belies her lack of tact and steamroller approach—and that comes through powerfully.
This is a wonderful addition to a series of crime books that demands to be read. It works as a stand-alone volume or, even better, in the context of the broader arc of the other books. Pashley continues to innovate and develop within a genre that does not constrain her literary ambitions but gives them a fantastic and insightful scope.