Kill Switch - Neal Baer, Jonathan Greene

This was...

This was just...


I'm at a loss for words.

That's right. This review gets a gif. The book is that special.

Nah. Who am I kidding? I'm never at a loss for words.


The Gist: Dr. Claire Waters is a forensic psychiatrist doing a fellowship at Rikers'. She is supposed to treat the sexual offender Todd Quimby, during his parole.  In their first meeting, Claire manages to force Quimby to recall his abuse under his blonde and beautiful mother, but rather than, yaknow, helping him, just flubs the remainder of the interview. Later that night, Quimby is admitted to the emergency room, babbling wildly about losing control.  The next day, Claire discovers that a prostitute who bore a striking resemblance to Quimby's mother was murdered. Suspecting her patient, she decides, as "therapy," to cut her hair, dye it blonde, and dress as a prostitute for her next appointment with Quimby. To Claire's surprise (but probably not the reader's), Quimby reacts badly to this and escapes.  Claire realizes she's released a serial killer on the streets and seeks out Detective Nick Lawler to offer her "help."  As they begin the search, they quickly discover that Quimby is stalking Claire.  But as the bodies begin to mount, one of the victims shows an odd medical history, they realize that things may not be as straightforward as they seem...


Since this review is going to break The Code of Niceness, I'm going to preemptively answer all the standard questions. 

(1) Well, why did I read if I didn't like it? When I picked it up, I thought it sounded like fun. If you've been in the U.S. for any length of time, you've probably seen a police procedural called Law and Order: SVU. It is impressively ubiquitous: any fitness center with more than one TV (one is for CNN) is guaranteed to be showing SVU on at least one screen. So the cover's statement that Kill Switch was written by two SVU producers had precisely the desired effect: I picked up the book, figuring I was in for an entertaining, comparatively well-researched police procedural.  Boy, was I wrong.

(2) So why did I finish it? Because I was a captive audience: I had a cold/stomach bug for a couple of days and it was the only audiobook I had on hand.  Also, it's sort of at the "so bad it's good" point: I kept listening in incredulous amusement, trying to predict just how much more ridiculous it was gonna get.

(3) Why am I reviewing it?  Because the mean-spirited part of me is so highly entertained by the fail that I have to share, and, as usual, it's overpowered the nice part.  Unfortunately, colds make me grumpy, so this review is extremely unforgiving.


I'll try to keep things vague, but I'm going to talk about plot points and victims, so **BEWARE SPOILERS**. I'll try to mark the worst offenders, but no guarantees.


How did it fail me? Let me count the ways.


Fail #1: Holy Drama Overload, Batman!

Melodrama is a strange flavouring; too little and the plot is dull; too much and it quickly becomes a farce.  In this case...well, for the protagonists:

        Nick's wife killed herself

AND he was suspected of her murder

AND he has to raise their kids

AND he's steadily going blind from Retinitis Pigmentosa

AND he's keeping it secret from everyone

AND his secret is being held hostage by his doctor

AND he's on his last leg back on his job

AND his partner is killed in a tragic and utterly pointless accident--run over by a train.

AND as for Claire, her best friend was abducted when she was a child

AND she is being stalked by a serial killer

AND her boyfriend is murdered

AND her bodyguard is strangled in her bathroom

AND she discovers that she was the fixation of the pedophile

(show spoiler)


As for the plot, we have:

A serial killer murdering blonde women

AND a fixated stalker

AND a character haunted by his abusive mother

AND a child murderer/rapist cold case

AND a mysterious cancer death

AND a mad car chase

AND a scientist with a god complex

AND an Evil Mentor

AND a conspiracy that is hushed up by the FBI

AND a meeting with the President

AND a killer virus

(show spoiler)


And that's not even talking about the crazy concatenations of circumstance we have to accept for the plot to work. 

For instance, for that whole body dump thing to make sense, either Sedgwick carries around dead bodies in his car for fun, or he planned to randomly partially strangle Claire and then run--also for fun, one assumes? As well as happily driving on the wrong side of traffic at over 100, then letting the car go into the river, assuming, all the while, that none of these reckless actions will prove harmful.  Oh, and he had to have thought ahead to prepare the strangled body properly, and then buckle it in under water.

Ye gods.


Speaking of which, apoptosis thing is utterly absurd.  Do people really think scientists try things on themselves before doing tests in vitro and in lab animals? "Hey, I made a drug! I wonder if it starts apoptosis or stops it cold! Let me check by testing it on myself!" is not standard practice even for mad scientists.  Plus, I'm missing how on earth you could mix opposite functionality up like that, or the mechanics of the virus given that it is spread orally.  Plus, cancer that targets a specific system and kills in less than a week?

(show spoiler)



Fail #2: The Pseudo-Sue

I'm easily irritated by Mary Sues, but there's one class of characters that annoys me even more.You know when there's a female character (or any other traditionally "weak" demographic) who is utterly ineffective and does nothing but whinge and whine and yet is praised as a "brave" heroine?  There is no way it would be acceptable for the male protagonist to have acted like the Pseudo-Sue, so all the adulation seems to have an unspoken yet blatant "for a woman" tagged to the end.  Sure, Claire is an absolute wet blanket, but she's so brave--for a woman.  If Nick, the male protagonist, had gone into such frenzied hysterics when he saw a murder scene that he had to be sedated, I doubt we'd be calling him "brave."  If he had dressed up like a male gigolo in a fit of petulance that roused his patient so much that attacked and fled, I doubt the characters would be "impressed" with his "out-of-the-box thinking." When she takes the TSTL step of dressing up and going to a bar that the killer frequented, Nick "had to admire her for her logic" and thinks she would make a good cop. And have you noticed how many of Claire's antics "require" her to dress provocatively?  She's not being objectified--she's being brave and creative. If Nick, the male detective, had started fainting and crying and shaking and freaking and squeaking, he probably wouldn't be considered the hero. Yes, Vanilla Mary Sues also tend to receive causeless praise, but there's always the sense that the admiration comes straight from the writer. In the case of the Mary Psuedo, you get the sense that the authors don't respect the character--they just thinks she's exceptional for a woman, or care so little about the character that they hope that a TSTL character can be hidden if the praise is heaped high enough.


Fail #3: Moonbounce Emotions
The characters in the novel let tragedy slide off them ridiculously easily and, in my opinion, jump right into incredibly inappropriate emotional viewpoints.


For example, how is Claire so untouched by her boyfriend's death? Yes, I know the narrative keeps telling us she's "sad" and she does have hysterics, but that's mainly over the shock of the violent scene. We never see her remembering him, or trying to cope with his loss, or feeling bereft at his absence. Instead, at Ian's actual funeral, her boss's confirmation that her job is safe actually makes her happy. A couple of weeks after her boyfriend's death, she spends her time grousing about her parents and musing on how she has found her center:

"Claire couldn't help but think that her parents were doing more for her now than they'd done when she was growing up.  It was ironic, she thought, that it took seven murders and a near breakdown for them to wake up. Better late than never.  For the first time in her life, Claire wasn't hiding in plain sight. For the first time, she didn't feel invisible."

And mere weeks after his tragic death, she's already beginning to crush on Nick. W.T.F. 


The general reaction to the discovery of Amy's body also struck me as bizarre.  Both Claire and Amy's mum express only relief at the finding of Amy's body. I would think that finding the body would destroy the last vestige of hope that Amy might have survived, escaped, be out there somewhere in the world.  At the very least, the relief, the "closure" as Claire keeps happily calling it, should be mixed with inexpressible pain, with loss of hope.  Yet both Claire and Amy's mom express only relief, as if finding a dead body somehow "fixed" everything:

"It had been five days since Amy's body was discovered and positively identified by DNA. Claire felt a relief she had never known. The small, burning pain in the pit of her stomach she had woken up with every morning was gone."


"As soon as they saw Claire on their doorstep, they knew they would finally have peace. Amy's mother pulled her into a tender embrace and stroked her hair as if she'd been reunited with the child she'd lost."

At the same time, Claire's various "visions" and hysterics were equally offputting.  I understand they were clumsy attempts at flashbacks, but hallucinating people who aren't there is heading straight into crazy town.

(show spoiler)



Fail #4: Writing Style:

The writers apparently write for TV, and believe me, you can tell. Adjective-tagging is ever-present, and in the rare cases in which actions are described, it reads more like stage directions than word portraits. The male gaze is obtrusive even when the story is supposed to be from Claire's perspective. Style is always a subjective judgment, but for me, the writing grated on my already shredded nerves. I'll leave you with this quote, which I find as inoffensive and reasonable as it is graceful:

Claire knew instantly what it was.

"It's her diary," she said to Nick.

"You haven't even looked at it," Nick said.

"I'm a girl," Claire said with a knowing smile. "Under the mattress is just one of the many favourite places we hide our diaries."

"Hide them from who?"

"Any busybody who'd want to read it. It's a privacy thing."

Nick threw her a look as he opened it. Again, Claire was correct. The smooth white pages bore the curvy, neat handwriting that could only be female.

Considering the author's credentials, I was also surprised and disappointed by the simplistic views of medicine and psychology. An example to demonstrate the complexity of characters, psychological depth, and syntax:

Claire turned on her best shrink approach to help Maggie feel comfortable and trust her: Get Maggie to talk about herself. "You know, we can talk for a bit before I have to go back inside," Claire said. "I could use a break." Claire smiled at Maggie when she noticed that Maggie's ponytail was damp and frizzy from the rain. "What made you decide to become a cop?"

"I was about to graduate with a degree in accounting when a girlfriend dared me to take the police exam. I walked in and aced it without even studying," Maggie said, shrugging her shoulders. "I realized then a life of crunching numbers wasn't for me." [Tee hee!]

For all that, other than the wooden characters, the improbable storyline, and the stilted writing, it isn't really a bad story at its core. There's something impossible to define in some thrillers, something that keeps you reading and your adrenaline flowing, and I think Kill Switch has it. A lot of my irritation (and subsequent snark) stems from disappointment; I'd expected rather more coherence and logic from the writers. If you do decide to read it, make sure you've aligned your expectations correctly.