'Darr' in Brighton

Graham Greene’s 1938 novel Brighton Rock was about a sociopath who was simultaneously obsessed with and repelled by sex and human contact. Want You Dead is a 21st-century crime-thriller where the main character is a great lover but a psychopath who is so obsessed with the woman he meets through an online dating agency in the English beach-resort of Brighton that, when she ends the relationship, he kidnaps and murders the next man in her life. He then attempts to kill the cop who tries to protect her.

In a strange way — you could even blame it on the insidious influence of Bollywood — Want You Dead reminded this reviewer of the 1993 Hindi movie Darr, where Rahul (played by Shah Rukh Khan) goes around serenading his fellow student Kiran (Juhi Chawla) in his dreams but can only stammer her name (“K...K...K... Kiran”) when he talks to her. And when Kiran decides to marry the dashing young naval officer Sunil (Sunny Deol), Rahul tries to kill everyone who comes between him and the girl he loves. The climax of Darr was, of course, shot not on the beach in Brighton, but on a Swiss lake.

Unlike the stammering Rahul, the Want You Dead villain, Bryce Laurent, is a sophisticated psychopath who has no doubts in his narcissistic mind that salesgirl Red Westwood deserves to be brutally punished for humiliating him by leaving him and getting a court order, restraining him from going anywhere near her. Laurent is a diabolical villain who, courtesy technology and his unmatched skills as a hacker, is even able to tune in to confidential conversations on the premises of the police station Sussex House, where detective superintendent Roy Grace is discussing ways and means of nabbing the psychopath-stalker who has a criminal record and has served a sentence for assaulting a former girlfriend. James never tells us exactly how Laurent is able to snoop in on police discussions. Do criminals always have to be smarter than the cops?

While reading this book, one gets the impression that James may have plotted the novel with an eye on potential movie-  rights. There are quite a few scenes that would make for startling visual effects, like the one where Laurent imagines himself hiding in a tree outside the church where Grace is to get married, and then shooting an arrow into the superintendent’s eye once he steps out with his bride.

Laurent is inspired by a scene from the movie The Day of The Jackal,where the would-be assassin rehearses shooting the French president in the head by firing at watermelons. Laurent gets the idea of using a bow after remembering a colour picture in a history book in school illustrating the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and showing the English king Harold with an arrow in his eye. Laurent stations himself with a crossbow in a tree 80 yards from the door of the church but, at the crucial moment when Grace steps out with his bride on his arm, a double-decker coach pulls up right in front, blocking the would-be cop-killer’s view.

Apart from being a good shooter, Laurent has other strings to his bow. He is a talented cartoonist and an expert magician with a flair for pyrotechnics (setting off fires and controlled explosions), but all these skills only make him that much more of a dangerous psychopath, who was abused in his childhood by his parents.

The reader would find it easier to empathise with the cops in the novel for whom tackling the abnormal is an occupational hazard even while they return home to the serenity of bawling babies and sleeping dogs. However, the abnormal can impact on the normal at any time, as when the female detective sergeant Bella Moy dies while rescuing a child in an apartment block set on fire by Laurent.

The sobbing Grace is consoled by chief constable Roy Martinson, who tells him, “Sometimes, in every police officer’s career, a terrible thing happens and we wonder why the hell we are doing this job. It’s also the moment when we realise that’s why we choose to do this job. Not many people phone the police because they are happy. We’re not here to serve happy people. We’re here to make a difference. Occasionally, we give up our lives to do that.”

Given his rapport with the cops, it’s not surprising that at the end of the book, the author acknowledges the names of 16 police officials, 10 members of the Sussex Fire and Rescue Services, nine individuals involved with the scheme for victims of domestic abuse, and four pathologists. James says the book itself was inspired by a conversation with a police chief superintendent who told him about a specific case he was working on. So, maybe, Laurent is not too bad to be true.

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