Fiona Cummins’ debut thriller, Rattle, is a mess.
A real world thriller with a supernatural horror genre identity crisis, Rattle – or, to give it its full title, according to Amazon, Rattle: a serial killer thriller that will hook you from the start (see: a mess) – is confused and confusing.
It works analogies to the point of abuse, it’s weirdly misogynistic (especially given it was written by a woman), and the muddled story it’s trying to tell falls down somewhere after its first ten descriptions of obscure medical conditions and never manages to scramble back to the same heights – rendering it a less fun read than 101 Bone Diseases That Could Kill You Tomorrow.
I’m not promising this review will be any better, of course. But I’m pretty confident it couldn’t be worse.
Spoilers – though I’d recommend reading them and saving the £5.70.
Rattle‘s biggest issue is not knowing what genre it wants to be. It’s an everyday crime thriller, without any supernatural goings-on, that still owes half its page count to horror stories.
And I don’t mean horror in the technically-Silence-of-the-Lambs-is-a-horror-story. I mean: children spontaneously learning creepy old folk songs after talking to an imaginary friend, alone, for hours. An imaginary friend who keeps asking them to do things they don’t want to. I mean: a villain with the ability to disappear in plain sight. I mean: the seatbelt warning going off in a car when the only person in it is belted in safe – as they mutter to someone under their breath. I mean: a child coming into his parents’ room, sick and delusional, and bashing his own head against the furniture until he bleeds without ever waking out of his stupor.
I mean horror.
These are all old tropes. There hasn’t been a Paranormal Activity or a film with the word ‘possession’ in it which hasn’t relied on the creepy kid, the imaginary friend who’s actually a demon, the unexplained super villain powers…
But, for the old supernatural tropes to make sense, the story using them needs to have a supernatural element to it.
Instead, two-thirds of the novel is spent setting up these strange goings on and the last third utterly forgetting about them. Two-thirds of the novel don’t advance the plot or the characters in any way, choosing to draw out these creepy moments instead which, ultimately, mean nothing since the story doesn’t have a supernatural resolution.
Inexplicably. I mean, it opens with:
On still nights, when the curve of a winter moon is smudged in the flow of the River Quaggy, the dead clamour for him.
He cocks his head and, through the whispering darkness, picks out the loosely formed sobs of the child.
The boy’s mumbled distress pulls at him across the sweep of the city, and he fights the urge to leave at once.
And we have lines like:
He closes his eyes, grasps the pendant between thumb and forefinger. Shadows enfold him like a lover.
I still don’t understand how that’s not describing the bogeyman.
Supernatural bait and switch
But – apparently – it’s not. Apparently, this story could be cut from a novel to a piece of flash fiction and not leave out a single important moment.
If anything, it might be better off without the bait and switch.
Which, I can only assume, is what the creepy moments were intended as – a red herring. One the characters never explore, of course. One meant purely for the audience, with plot points like a child bashing his own head open which never go anywhere or accomplish anything.
Or maybe the publisher asked for a new, less-super-more-natural ending way too close to the deadline. And forgot to tell the marketing team, because there’s no way you can convince me the tagline, ‘once he’s seen you, it’s already too late,’ is about a human man in his later years who sometimes kills people – that is the very definition of not too late.
But. Despite the tag-line, despite the two-thirds-of-a-book-implying-something-supernatural-is-happening, Rattle is – apparently – not a horror story.
What it is is harder to define.
Rattle is told by an omniscient narrator who takes delight in pointing out, again and again, how disaster could have been avoided if the characters had made pointless, consequence-less decisions differently, like what to have for dinner, or to go to a hair appointment instead of picking up their kid from school.
It feels like Cummins is trying to make a point with it, but given the disaster was ‘a serial killer ultimately kidnapped their children’, the only decision that actually matters is the serial killer’s.
The action itself switches between ‘the Bone Collector’, a man whose family have collected skeletons with bone deformities (through any means necessary) for decades; Fitzroy, a police detective trying to prove herself again, after getting too involved in a missing child case and attacking a known pedophile; some flat caricatures of rich parents who add nothing to the story; distinctly unlikeable, unchild-like children who you never just can’t quite root for, even when they’re being drugged and kidnapped; and irredeemable snot of a human being Erdman – unfortunately for the audience, the main character – a man who loathes his wife to the point of just-stop-being-with-her-honestly-that’s-what-divorce-is-for, who loathes his job, who skips out on work to drink in the middle of the day, who resents all of his friends for achieving an iota of success in life ( presumably perhaps by doing things other than day-drinking and resenting their wives), but who loves his ill son – which is presented as some kind of redeeming quality and not just how it should be.
The story jumps from character to unlikeable character as the Bone Collector kidnaps five-year-old Clara from school then promptly does… nothing to her. Nothing whatsoever. For no reason at all.
Despite the fact the Bone Collector has killed and dismembered other children, despite the fact he took her in the first place explicitly to kill and dismember her, he chooses to hold Clara captive. For no reason. Or none except Cummins shying away from dark paths while still needing to bring police detective Fitzroy into the picture.
The story isn’t what you could call ‘character-driven’.
‘Coincidence-driven’, ‘stupid-decision-driven’, ‘otherwise-smart-characters-making-terrible-out-of-character-decisions-to-serve-the-weak-plot-driven’, sure. But Cummins drives her characters with all the subtlety of a freight train.
So – because Cummins needs him to – while Fitzroy is investigating Clara’s disappearance, the Bone Collector takes an interest in Erdman’s son, Jakey, who has a) a terrible name, and b) an especially rare bone disease which effectively traps him in his own body.
Despite the fact he has a perfectly good bone-deformed child at home he hasn’t even started on yet, the Bone Collector sets out to get the boy. While also setting out to leave a load of rabbit skeletons as his calling card (no serial who deliberately planted clues at the scene ever got caught).
Then – no plot happens for two-thirds of the book.
There are words. Many of them showing what a terrible human being Erdman is in every way imaginable. Some of them showing Fitzroy – a character who we can almost root for – sleep-depriving herself to do absolutely nothing to help the case.
Most of them implying something much more interesting is going on, then slowly revealing that – in fact – nothing is going on at all.
And then we reach the end.
The weirdly misogynic end
Fitzroy, a police woman – an actual, qualified, trained police woman – finds the Bone Collector’s house just as he starts walking up the drive. It should be a tense moment – exciting, nerve-wracking. And it is. For Fitzroy.
She panics. She freezes and lets the killer drag her into his house without even putting up a fight.
I might believe it if the Bone Collector were a supernatural killer, but he’s a janitor in his fifties. And she’s a professional police woman.
She was just deciding how best to proceed, whether to break a window or scale the fence and look for a back door, when she noticed a slight figure scurrying up the garden path. She shrank back against the wall, and it seemed he hadn’t seen her, but then the hand holding a set of keys dropped to his side, and he turned away from the house, scanning the night-time street. He took a step towards her and paused, and Fitzroy, whose legs had turned to water, exhaled, not in relief, but as a way of expelling the fear which had built up inside her like a geyser ready to blow. His eyes were black, and unflinching, and when they met hers, she glimpsed in them a knowledge of unspeakable horrors, and she tried to turn away, to run from this dark man who walked in step with death, but his gaze mocked her, and she found herself unable to break away. He moved across the street towards her, and the skies above her sulked, and the wind stopped, and it seemed as if the night would swallow her up. Fitzroy let out a cry, and stumbled into the alley, looking for a cut-through, a way out, but it was bricked up and lined with overflowing rubbish bins, and so she pressed herself against the damp roughness. And then he was there, his sour breath in her face, a scalpel in the spokes of his hand. His voice was soft and courteous, conversational. ‘Detective Sergeant Etta Fitzroy, a pleasure to meet you at last.’ She didn’t answer. Couldn’t.
It’s a moment which makes the character thoroughly unlikeable. Which is particularly unfortunate since she was the only likeable character to begin with.
She becomes weak for no good reason – she’s never had any kind of panic attack or… ‘unspeakable horror crisis’ before. She’s always come across as smart and resourceful, which makes this all the worse. Cummins – a female author – felt she had to reduce her strong female professional police woman character to a sobbing, simpering wreck so the male lead could save the day.
Because of course walking piece of phlegm Erdman charges in to save both Jakey and obvious weakling in need of defending Fitzroy.
And sure, trying to save his kid is the only thing human-shaped garbage pile Erdman could do narratively to begin the hope of a redemption arc, but that doesn’t mean professional, highly-trained, years of experience, surely deals with worse than scalpels police woman Fitzroy needed to melt into a puddle of uselessness.
She could have left for back-up. She could have even been caught off-guard – which would feel much less ridiculous, given she’s been struggling to sleep while she’s been on this case.
Bad female characters sends a bad message
Anything would have made more sense – and felt less terrible. Fitzroy was the only female character not presented as an airhead, a whore, or a ‘gnat’s arse’ nag; she was the only character that felt like she wasn’t being written by a bitter old man who thinks women talk too much and have nothing to say. To reduce her to a damsel in distress doesn’t just go against what had already been established about her character, it reduces the whole novel to outdated sexist stereotypes.
To be honest, I was surprised to find this was written by a female author. The last time I endured female characters this weak was in Hex – though Heuvelt at least committed to the misogyny and sexualised then brutally murdered all of his female characters, so there was something concrete to point to to say this wasn’t right.
Cummins is more insipid. But no less dangerous.
No sense for analogies
And it’s a shame. Because, ultimately, Rattle isn’t badly written. It’s not greatly written either – Cummins has no sense for analogies but insists on using them anyway. Constantly. And with poor results.
If Fitzroy didn’t get some sleep soon, she would grind to a halt, like an inferior Duracell Bunny whose cymbals gradually slow down and stop clashing altogether.
That only sends you spiralling out of the moment, wondering what the hell the character’s trying to say.
And it happens a lot.
It feels like most of Rattle‘s problems could have been solved by a good editor – someone to point to the Duracell Bunny similes and say, ‘Oh, honey. No.’ Someone to cut out the weird supernatural red herring page filler and suggest more character-building instead. Someone to think maybe the gosh-darn professional police woman should be gosh-darn professional, gosh-darn it.
There are some interesting ideas rattling around in Cummins’ story. But the bad ones just crush them.