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John Mosby reviews Shaun Hutson's Epitaph, a provocative thriller that deals with the violent, the sordid and the unpleasant with almost a cold indifference.

Epitaph Book CoverAuthor: Shaun Hutson
Publisher: Orbit
Price: £19.99 (Hardback)
Availability: Out Now

As the school breaks up for the holidays, Laura Hackett – just old enough to take the short walk alone – makes her way from school to her home. She will never get there. Abducted by a pervert, her brutalised body will later be found, leaving her already troubled parents, Frank and Gina, devastated.  In another story strand, PR executive Paul Crane pours himself an unhealthy amount of spirits to wash away the news that he’s just been laid off and has no other real form of income to support his ambitious lifestyle in an already strained market. If you told him things were about to get worse he probably wouldn’t believe you, but when he attempts to rise from his stupor, he realises he’s no longer in his apartment. He’s in a coffin and a distant voice wants to know why he murdered a little girl named Laura.

The problem with books that deal with the violent, the sordid and the unpleasant is that they have an uphill struggle to avoid merely being seen as exploitative themselves. The argument – probably to an extent quite rightly passionate on both sides – goes that either there’s a responsibility to show something as unpleasant if it IS genuinely so  (rather than diluting or censoring it into something more digestible merely for the comfort of a reader who knowingly picked the material in the first place) or, on the other, that there’s a danger in overtly revelling in it in the kind of way that the Daily Mail takes a full page spread with detailed glossy pictures and descriptions to deride anything it finds remotely scandalous…

The third path that Shaun Huston’s Epitaph takes is almost a cold indifference, describing in explicit detail… in the way that a vaguely omnipotent but disinterested man on the witness stand might relate another’s testimony – a detached third person discussing the horrific with no judgement in his tone. In doing so Hutson succeeds in making the reader seem both complicit and distanced from the emotions on show.  While we should be rightly horrified at the actions of the paedophile (whose victim is the lynchpin for the book) a common inner question from readers to themselves might well be ‘do we really need to hear the parents demand their captured suspect relates exactly what sexual abuse he supposedly committed against a girl barely old enough to go to school?’  Hutson’s amoral stance – exploring a situation through a set of characters in which it’s hard to find a single pleasant attribute and never really condemning  the most heinous of crimes, just observing others handling it badly – suggests we do or should share that torment… but the reader may often find themselves shifting uncomfortably.

Provocative thrillers can either be an excellent source of entertainment or food for thought, (occasionally both) but while one can appreciate the brisk, short-chaptered way that Hutson relates the story and the general  talent the prolific horror/thriller author brings to the tomb-like tome, there’s also an undeniable nihilistic and depressing air that makes you want to rush to the final pages not just because of the story’s inner momentum  but because you want the experience to be over.

An interesting and challenging idea from the author, this is still ultimately little more than emotional torture-porn dressed up in something more intellectual. Epitaph may well delight Hutson’s regular readers and existing fans of his genre, but may do little to win him any more.

John Mosby

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