SECOND OPINION: Believe Me by J.P. Delaney

Review published on September 10, 2018.

Claire Wright is a twenty-five-year-old British drama student who, following a disastrous relationship, has moved to America to pursue her acting career. She has been awarded a scholarship for a course at the Actors Studio but, as this covers only some of her tuition fees, she needs to find a way to make money. As she doesn’t have a green card any legitimate jobs are hard to come by; her student visa allows only for jobs on campus and competition for those is fierce. Her luck changes when her agent, impressed with her acting skills, puts her in touch with Henry, who works as an investigator for a firm of divorce attorneys. Her role is to pose as an easy pick-up in hotel bars and to encourage her “target” to suggest a sexual liaison. When he does so she finds a way to withdraw, gives Henry the recorded evidence of the interchange and, in return, is paid her fee in cash. For as accomplished and ambitious an actor as Claire, this is four hundred dollars easily earned. She has few qualms about her morally questionable role, particularly as she believes men are inherently unfaithful and, in any case, is prepared to do anything which helps her to fulfil her dreams. However, one “sting” goes wrong when her target, Patrick, resists her advances; instead they discuss the book he is reading, some of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry.

When his wife is murdered at the hotel later that night, Patrick is suspected not only of killing her but, as the police investigation proceeds, also of the killings of several prostitutes. Claire is asked by the detective in charge of the case to use her acting skills to lure Patrick into making a confession and, fearful of being deported and unable to resist the promise of a green card and a financial reward if she cooperates, she agrees. However, she is attracted to Patrick and, right from the start, doubts he is capable of being a murderer, let alone a serial killer. In fact, she begins to think that he is possibly the only decent husband she has ever met!

This is quite a difficult book to review because it would be all too easy to give away plot spoilers, so I’ll just concentrate on some of the things which worked for me, and those which didn’t. The story is told from Claire’s perspective and, from the first chapter, it is clear that she is an actor because, interspersed with straightforward narrative, much of the action is described as though it is a scene in a play, including stage directions. I found this an effective devise because the reader immediately starts to recognise that this is how Claire lives her life, everything she does is predicated on being a performer. Her acting style is based on the belief that you don’t “play” a character, you “immerse yourself in the emotional truth of a part until it’s part of you”. This is something which come easily to her because for many years of her childhood she was moved from foster family to foster family and quickly needed to learn how to adjust, to play a role in order to fit in. This makes it difficult for her (and the reader!) to know who she is, what is real and what is make-believe. Initially I found this structure a bit irritating but very quickly experienced it as being an effective way of exploring Claire’s thought-processes – and her psychopathology!

Central to the story are references to the dark, erotic poems from Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”, reflecting the part they played in the earlier killings of prostitutes, as well as in the murder of Patrick’s wife. All the killings imitate scenes from these deviant poems about beauty, perversion, sex and death and, as Patrick is a university professor whose interest in them borders on the obsessional, suspicions about his involvement appear to be reasonable. The quotes from these poems often make for disturbing and challenging reading, highlighting as they do the contrasts between good and evil and the fact that grotesque, dark imagery can be described using beautiful, alluring language, making the descriptions fascinating as well as repellent. I appreciated the dramatic way in which the author used them within the context of the story, and as a way by which to explore the developing relationship between Claire and Patrick. I also liked the way in which I was constantly faced with having to struggle with what was fantasy and what was reality, something which was mirrored in Claire’s personality, as well as in Patrick’s.

This story is full of twists and turns and, although some of the developments felt predictable, many of them caught me by surprise, requiring me to reassess all my previous assumptions. However, the plot development does require a considerable willingness to suspend disbelief. I’m usually happy to do this if I’m engrossed in a story but there were occasions when the twists felt so lacking in credibility that I found myself feeling increasingly irritated by the almost constant requirement to do so! I never feel that in order to enjoy a book I need to like the characters but in this story there wasn’t one character I could either like or feel emotionally engaged with and, because of that, I didn’t much care what happened to any of them! However, the author did use them to good effect in exploring themes such as trust and mistrust, deception and self-deception, emotional fragility and strength, narcissism and introspection, deceit and truth, to highlight just a few. For this reason, when I finished the final chapter I felt that, on balance, it was the quality of his story-telling which had kept me reading. This is certainly a psychological thriller which would generate some lively discussions in reading groups!

Linda Hepworth 3/4

Believe Me by J.P. Delaney
Quercus 9781787472402 hbk Jul 2018

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