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Saturday, May 6, 2017

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Berkley, 384 pages, $26

Clare Mackintosh is the author of last year’s surprising debut, “I Let You Go.” She proved she could twist a plot with the best of them. “I See You,” of course, has a twist, but by now you, as a reader of her previous work or of women-in-jeopardy thrillers in general, are expecting that. Will it matter who the villain actually is, since suspecting every character in turn is the main preoccupation?

The subgenre of women-in-jeopardy books is based on the old formula of a woman meeting a man, the ensuing romance or conflict-then-romance, someone trying to do grievous harm to the woman, the romantic interest being suspected of being the villain, and then the man either being the villain (and the woman being saved by another romantic interest who is poor but honorable) or saving the woman from the villain. The end.

Quite a few recent women authors have turned this subgenre on its head. Perhaps the most famous is “Gone Girl.” “Girl on the Train” followed soon after. It no longer became de rigeur to have to like the woman in order to like the book. And the woman in jeopardy no longer was a predictable character.

In “I See You,” someone is assaulting women. Sometimes it is as serious as murder and rape, sometimes it is creepy stalking. Is it the same perpetrator? If not, why are a series of events even a series? What is the common ground?

There are two women who are the focus of Mackintosh’s book. Zoe Walker is a middle-aged woman, with two grown children, an ex-husband, and a boyfriend who lives with her and her children in a nice little house. She apparently is attractive but perhaps not wildly so. We discover she is between sizes 12 and 14, has a routine 9-to-5 job as an office manager/bookkeeper in London, and gets along with everybody pretty much.

The other main character is PC Kelly Swift. Kelly made a bad occupational mistake somewhere along the line and was demoted from DC to a uniformed PC. What was the mistake? Why would a lowly PC then become involved in a high-energy inquiry with the murder squad?

One day Zoe discovers what looks like a rather fuzzy picture of her fronting an ad for perhaps a dating service. As she shares the picture with her near and dear, they discourage her from thinking that it actually is a picture of her. But a bad feeling persists. Even worse, then a prickly feeling on the back of her neck warns Zoe that she is being watched. But by whom? She sees an unknown man staring at her on the subway she always takes to work. His look seems rather intense. But nothing happens other than Zoe's anxiety quotient ratcheting up.

Then Zoe sees another ad for the same dating service with another woman’s picture in it. Whoa. She recognizes the picture. The woman has been the victim of a crime. That’s when Zoe contacts the police and Kelly Swift stumbles onto the case. That's because Zoe’s event (or non-event) takes place on the subway and Kelly has just finished a stint nabbing subway pickpockets.

The story escalates and Kelly manages to insert herself into a bigger investigation. There are many ads and a couple of murder victims appear in them. Kelly likes Zoe and doesn’t want her to become the next victim of a serious crime. That’s a challenge because of Kelly’s limited scope, even when she worms her way into the big-time team.

What Clare Mackintosh does very well is write characters. Kelly and Zoe are strong women. They are capable but they have flaws. In Kelly’s case, she stubbornly goes her own way despite being officially sanctioned off. Zoe has a high degree of the Mama Bear Syndrome. She wants to protect her son and daughter, even though they might be better off without so much of her interference. Her anxiety hovers around Defcon 2.

It’s hard to completely like these women. They jump to conclusions, go off on their own, and have past issues that cloud their judgment. But they are smart and persistent. They don’t share the stage often, but they each narrate about half the book. A small segment of the book is reserved for the thoughts of the actual villain who is behind much of the badness.

The flawed characters express Mackintosh’s genius. We like them, but we don’t like everything about them. We want them to succeed but groan when they get in their own way. Mackintosh sets up a conflict of emotions in her readers, which leads to compulsory page-turning to see how she will resolve the story. She makes you care about these very human and interesting characters of hers.

Did I like Mackintosh’s resolution? Maybe not so much. Maybe it appeared to be rather violently odd. But I swallowed it. It fits in with the new suspense model for women-in-jeopardy: Never make assumptions and expect the unexpected.

By the way, Mackintosh has a rather brilliant way of working the title into the story.

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