Oh, J.A Konrath. I swear you just like to make my filing systems cry.
To the uninitiated, this may look like my first time reviewing this author, but it isn’t. J.A Konrath sometimes goes by another name, Jack Kilborn, and is thus responsible for one of my favorite literary indulgences, Afraid.
I reviewed that book and why I like it a while ago, which you can read here if you feel so inclined. Today, though, I’m going to ramble about The List, another book by the same man that I absolutely loved.
I was fortunate enough to come into possession of this title thanks to the lovely Kensington Books, and thus read it this week. I am now kicking myself for not having read it sooner, as the title has existed since 2009, back when I first came across Afraid.
My only excuse is that the early 2010’s marked a very drastic change in the course of my life, which required me to stop buying books seeing as I was going to move five thousand miles by the end of it.
That said, late to the party as I am, I am definitely going to be recommending The List, by the end of this, if only because I had so much fun with it.
Right, let’s pull this thing apart!
The List. Hooky kind of title, right? And in keeping with Konrath’s style, very pertinent to everything going on. One of the things I like about his books is that he wears everything he is doing on his sleeve, unapologetically. When the book tells you ‘All of them are marked for death because they’re next on… The List!’ you kind of know what you are getting into.
I’m also really glad I got handed a PDF with no cover art. I went into the book not knowing much about what was going to happen, and thus enjoyed the roller coaster that is a Konrath novel for all it was worth. There is one cover for this book (not the one above) that gives matters away a bit, and I’m glad I never saw that until afterward.
I stepped into this with only the knowledge that The List is a little more sci-fi than horror, but still full of late night thriller vibes, and that is just what I got. And for me, that was perfect.
The List starts us off with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, then jumps straight into what might be considered ‘the deep end’ with chapter one:
“I found the head.”
Tom Mankowski, Chicago Homicide Detective Second Class, pushed the chair aside and squinted into the darkness under the desk. The two uniforms who were first on the scene flanked him.
It’s a strong opening. Someone is dead, clearly it’s a violent murder scene, our main character is going to be a cop and no doubt the story will unfold around this initial event. Considering the title, we can infer the dead person will be on whatever this ‘list’ is, and that is indeed the case.
Which is why I really like that Chapter 1 is so boring.
See, writing often involves showing the main character in their normal environment before matters spur them into the unusual activity that forms the story. We need this, so we see the character developing and reacting from a stable starting place and can get invested in them. And for Tom Mankowski, murder scenes are part of his 9-5.
True, he is far from blase about the horror inside the crime scene, but the dialogue and rote nature of the investigation takes all the impact out of the scene, as it should. Detectives, ME’s and everyone else involved in a violent death have the training to distance themselves from the work they must do, and Tom is believable precisely because the opening chapter is so sedate, and short.
It also makes what comes in chapter three better, when someone without that kind of training finds themselves in peril.
We have our opening, and our set up. Like with Afraid, it’s about the only pause we’re going to get because once matters kick off, they don’t stand still for long.
I talk about Konrath’s work like a series of late-night movies, which I hope he wouldn’t find insulting if he ever came across my wittering, especially as I am incredibly picky about movies and I like his work.
The List is part of this. The plot follows a series of characters all with one uniting feature – a tattooed number on the bottom of their left feet, something they share with the murdered man from the opening. Death is stalking our heroes, at the behest of a villain who has Saturday Morning Cartoon written all over him. And that’s not a bad thing.
See, The List plays with a lot of tropes, some madcap science at its best, and a premise that is truly ludicrous when you sit back and think about it. (And I’m not going to explain more than that, because it would ruin the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet.)
If it were not presented in such an enjoyable fashion and at the relentless pace Konrath employs, it would fall apart at the first hurdle. In his hands, however, the tropes do their job, the science is enjoyable, the villany comfortable in that we can just hate the bad guys because they are bad, and be done with it.
It’s a popcorn and beer kind of a book. I’ve had a nasty little throat infection in the past week and cuddling up in my bed while the thunder raged outside, drinking a cup of tea and scrolling through each page to find out what happens next was perfect. Each revelation made me either grin or laugh aloud, and the way Konrath handles his gore and fight scenes tickled that dark little spot in my soul that so enjoys a bit of bloodshed. I found myself almost cheering for the bad guys as much as the good because once you know who they are, you can’t help but wonder what Konrath is going to do with them next.
None of it is believable, taken outside of the book itself. If you are looking for a serious thriller, entirely ‘real’ people and reactions and sympathetic villains… this isn’t for you. But if you want something fun, a pleasant roller coaster that moves fast enough you don’t care what’s going on outside for a while and just want to enjoy the ride, Konrath delivers as usual. Put your logical hat aside, get some popcorn, and read this madness just to see where it goes next. You’ll have fun, I promise.
The characters are truly vital to The List, even more so than the average novel. This is because everyone is wearing two hats as the story goes on, a comment I can’t explain without ruining the book, sadly.
Our male lead is Tom Mankowski, a put-upon cop who ends up zipping all over the States to try and figure out who is killing people with heel tattoos, and why. Through him, we are presented with the very deep question of what exactly makes you who you are, though I appreciate Konrath didn’t try to hammer too hard on an answer to that question. Is there such a thing as destiny, or pre-determination? Nature, or nurture? Tom has a lot on his plate.
He is joined by Joan Devilliers, a high-flying member of the film industry and very capable lady. Konrath handles her as well as he does all his characters – fairly. She has perhaps the most pronounced development arc in the book, or at least the most explored.
The two would be nothing without Roy and Bert, a pair who end up bickering like an old married couple through most of the book and provide us with some light entertainment in the down times between bursts of violence. While the interactions initially aggravated me, and certainly the two are childish in the extreme at times, I couldn’t help warming to them both, especially by the end. And what is a slasher movie without its jokers?
Beyond the other characters who join in as the story progresses, we also need to give a thought to the bad guys, who are as much a part of The List as its stalwart heroes.
Strangely, the main ‘bad guy’ isn’t that compelling. I called him a Saturday Morning Cartoon earlier, and he does come across that way. His plan is grandiose and impractical, rooted in mad science without conscience. But this is ok because through him we get our three much more present threats: Arthur, Jack and Victor. Watching them go when any one of them has a nark on is a treat, especially once you find out the ‘second hat’ each one is wearing.
My only regret with the villains is that they don’t feel as well developed as those in Afraid, and of course, there is no capuchin monkey called Alan Mathison Turing. Still, I had fun reading about them and that counts for a lot.
Experience of Reading
Like Afraid, The List is just plain fun. It’s another expertly paced late-night thriller designed to keep you entertained.
I’ve seen unkind people refer to Konrath’s work as ‘derivative at best’, and I think that does a great disservice to someone who clearly knows his genre well, and has a gift for pacing I can only dream of.
See, there’s a reason tropes become routine and certain patterns predictable – there is merit in them. Yes, writing nothing but cliche is a bad thing, and the world is full of advice for why we should always strive to do something new, or put a spin on things, but we all know how I feel about advice.
Konrath is unapologetic in the stories he chooses to tell. I hope he had a lot of fun writing them, because he delivers fun to the reader, if you can just let go of your inner critic long enough to enjoy it.
His characters are strongly represented, his settings always come to life in my head, his pacing is relentless even if some things may seem convenient after the fact, and the bloodshed is delivered in the kind of glorious red Hammer Horror used to specialize in. And if Hammer Horror is considered classic, I see no reason why we can’t give similar accolades to stories designed to hit those same buttons because people like that, especially when it’s done well.
Konrath is a big bag of Starburst. Each bite of his work is a delectable little candy, each of his stories different flavors on similar themes. Afraid will likely always be my favorite cherry flavor, but The List is an easy strawberry if nothing else.
Like with a huge bag of sweets, consuming the entire lot at once is probably a bad idea and you shouldn’t live on candy alone, but when you have a hankering for a tasty sugar burst, his books are easy to pick up and enjoy.
Dim the lights, pour yourself a drink, read it all in one go, and laugh with delight as you find out just who everyone is, and just how brazen the writer is for pulling off such a silly idea in such a dark and fun way.
Title: The List
Author: J.A Konrath
My favorite quote: ‘Fine, if they get in the house, you can whack them with your genitals’ <– I don’t even want to explain the context here. But it made me laugh aloud.
The List is part of the Konrath Horror Collective, and also available through Kensington Books (www.kensingtonbooks.com)