Review: The Tall Man, by Phoebe Locke

The Tall ManWhen Sadie was a little girl, she and her friends wanted to be special. The Tall Man could make them so, they thought — he gives gifts to his special ones, and others he takes away. But sometimes he needs help. When Sadie was a woman, she had a daughter, and for a while the whispers from the darkness retreated. But the Tall Man comes for daughters, and she knew she had to lead him away from Amber. Now Amber is a young woman, and the centre of macabre celebrity after walking away innocent from a murder trial, the images of her bloody hands and clothes still fresh in everyone’s eyes. But who did she kill, and why, and did the Tall Man really make her do it?

I know nothing about the Slender Man internet legend except for what’s written in the Wikipedia article, since I don’t really frequent the corners of the web where it was developed and propagated. I would guess that the homage to Slender Man is why most readers would pick up this novel, but I bought it because I saw it mentioned in The Guardian and I am interested in stories about children who kill (also, it was on sale for 99p). Another lifetime ago I was interested in pursuing criminal psychology, so the particular ways in which a mind breaks in order to commit cold-blooded murder, and how we can prevent that from happening, are real areas of interest to me and it’s particularly fascinating when dealing with children, to whom we ascribe so much (sometimes misplaced) sense of innocence.

The Tall Man weaves back and forth in time between three eras: Sadie’s childhood, Sadie’s abandonment and then resumption of motherhood, and the present day where a film crew are trying to make a documentary about Amber, with her limited co-operation. I tend to like books that switch back and forth in time, but while it did a moderately good job of heightening the suspense here, it also served to help drag out an already bloated story.

This is a book that relies mostly on keeping the reader in the dark to preserve the illusion of plot, which would otherwise be substantial enough to justify a short story. I wouldn’t necessarily mind if the reveals were worth the page count, but I suspect they would have felt anticlimactic even if I hadn’t guessed them a fair way beforehand by paying attention to the gaps in reader knowledge that the narrative seemed structured to preserve. Further padding is added by lingering over the personal relationships of the documentary crew in Amber’s story, threads that are all going to be summarily abandoned without resolution once the Sadie/Amber/Tall Man mystery is concluded. Even their family relationships get short shrift in the end, really.

If anyone, like me, was hoping for some interesting psychological commentary on the children who kill for the Tall Man and why, be prepared for disappointment in that regard as well. Locke seems too concerned with dragging out the mystery of whodunnit and what they dun until the last moment to do any delving there. In thrillers with potentially supernatural elements, it’s often good not to shine too bright a light on the supernatural lest it become mundane, but your humans need to withstand the believability test, and these humans have too many pieces chopped out in the service of keeping the reader guessing. Sometimes Locke also heavily implies menace where there is none to make you wonder if a character you were starting to sympathise with is really evil, which in the end makes the characterisation cardboard thin as consistency is sacrificed in favour of plot (using that term generously).

On a technical level the writing is mostly very polished for what I thought was a debut, so it makes sense to discover that Phoebe Locke is a pseudonym for a writer with a number of publications under her belt, Nicci Cloke. There were some attempts at florid prose that fell flat, such as a dinner scene where poor phrasing makes it appear that the mushrooms are ignoring Sadie’s parents.

On the whole, it was a quick, light read which had some spooky scenes and kept me turning the pages, and it was worth the 99p I paid for it. But the more I reflect on it, the more it falls apart. It’s not going to be something I recommend to anyone, and I can’t say that it’s turned me on to either Locke’s work or the Slender Man.

2.5 stars

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