Mark Davis is a former White House speech writer so he should be well versed in writing fiction . . . just kidding! Actually, this novel does have a political thread running through it so that Capitol Hill experience came in handy. Seven Shoes also mines the dark recesses of the Cold War for the contemporary ramifications of a secret CIA programme but that is only part of the plot. This novel has a couple of welcome ingredients for a debut crime story – namely, a touch of originality and an intriguingly twisty plot. Seven Shoes is a bit of a hybrid novel, blending sub-genres skilfully to weave a modern nightmare/psychological thriller that borders on the sci-fi but doesn’t cross the line. It’s a little whacky, or perhaps more accurately, a bit left field, but it is engaging.
The opening really grabs the reader’s attention, it really hooks you into the story. It’s the contrast between an apparently normal day in the city and a sudden strange event that is irresistible. This also proves to be a clever way of introducing the main protagonist, Elizabeth Browne, so that the reader gets where she’s coming from and how that will impact on the story that follows.
Washington, Vermont Avenue: Elizabeth exits her office building on to the sidewalk, she’s on the way to lunch with a friend, then time seems momentarily suspended. As she’s standing there an SUV pulls up in the middle of the road right in front of her; the brakes screech, she flinches, almost expecting to get hit. The driver ignores the angry tooting of horns and gets out to the vehicle, he’s bare chested, strike that, as he comes around the car Elizabeth realises he’s stark naked and now he walking straight towards her. (Me – what the hell is going on?) Passers-by with their heads down do their best to ignore him, pretending there is nothing to see here. Elizabeth looks at his face, there’s a vague smile present and a kind of vacant look in his eyes, she knows that look, knows exactly what it means. As he reaches her he says excuse me and steps around her into the building through the revolving doors as if everything was as it should be. Elizabeth follows him back inside, the security guard looks up; ‘Sir. Sir? Sir!’ He heads for the lift, Elizabeth follows, the guard is left in their wake. She talks to him, his name is Jeremy, he presses for the ninth floor and she the third in the hope of getting him to her office. What ever is wrong they can fix it, Elizabeth offers; ‘I’m what’s wrong’, he replies, and then:
‘“Really I am fine,” he says. “I’m cool with this.”’
It all brings back memories of Mike, her brother who committed suicide and her father before that. Can she talk Jeremy down?
Three months later in London, Dr. Elizabeth B. Browne of Georgetown University and School of Medicine is giving a speech at the Savoy to the Royal Council for the Prevention of Suicide; psychiatrists, academics, activists and surviving relatives. She talks about Jeremy and Mike and about her own experience as a patient/therapist.
A few days after that, while in the throes of a nightmare, Elizabeth’s phone rings, it’s 3.33a.m. It’s Townsend Grey of the US embassy in London, they want her help with a delicate matter. There’s been a mass suicide in Norway but the victims, four American and three British, are high profile. The ambassador has suggested to the British that Elizabeth help with the investigation. A couple of hours later she’s on her way to Stavanger, Norway, in the company of Metropolitan Police officer D.I. Nasrin Jones. Among the dead are pharma-CEO Sandra Armstrong, mystery writer Anne Shrewsbury, playwright Lionel Jacobsen and an oil executive. Elizabeth and Nasrin are met by chief inspector Stenstrom and inspector Dahl and taken to Preikestolen, Pulpit Rock, the scene to the incident.
Representatives of the FBI and the US embassy, (CIA?), are present and there’s some discord over the Norwegian decision to place the park service director in charge, he has seniority over the local police. Pulpit Rock is an outcrop about two thousand feet above Lysefjord. On the rock they find seven shoes; a pump, man’s exec shoe, woman’s boot, a slipper, an open toe shoe, a loafer and a trainer, each with an ID inside. The group death leap happened somewhere between 7.40 and 7.50 the previous morning and only three bodies have been recovered so far. Local witness, old Magnus, brings folk lore into the story muddying the waters but there are very few real leads to go on. What could have brought them together? It can’t just be a suicide website or their personal depressions, there has to be some deeper connection, there’s something more sinister at work here. If this is orchestrated how could someone get seven people to commit suicide in an apparent pact?
Seven Shoes is a complex story revolving around biker gangs, the dark web, and mind control experiments, (think MKUltra and hallucinogenic drugs). It won’t come as a shock to readers to know that a dangerous killer is on the loose, hell bent on chaos. As a side line Elizabeth is caught up in a game between competing intelligence services with their own agenda as she tries to figure out the killer’s MO and identity. As Elizabeth seeks answers she doesn’t realise how much her past and family history make her vulnerable as the killer goes on the hunt again.
A psychological thriller/murder mystery that poses an intriguing ‘what if?’ around the manipulation of individuals by someone who has the knowledge and means to manipulate minds. A fast, slightly off kilter, read if you’re looking for something a bit different.
Paul Burke Personal read 3.5*
This is not a book group read.
Seven Shoes by Mark Davis
Stark House Press Paperback 23/3/20