Throughout his childhood, Jazz was influenced and indoctrinated by his psycho-killer father in thought, deed and subliminal suggestion. Now as a young man on the brink of adulthood, he’s already a skilled social engineer, a manipulator. Is he also a serial killer in waiting? Or will he use his skills and talents to confront his family history and the man who murdered his mother?
Although I hadn’t read the first book in the Jasper Dent sequence, that didn’t stop me understanding or enjoying Game. The events of the previous novel are well explained so it’s easy to catch up with the general themes. Jazz (Jasper) is the son of America’s most notorious serial killer; a cunning and intelligent psychopath cut from much the same cloth as one Doctor Lecter.
Game is relatively mild for its genre; there are of course dead bodies galore as a new killer goes on the rampage in New York city, but the gory details are lightly sketched and none too graphic. Instead the story concentrates on the psychological aspects of Jazz’s complicated relationships, not just with his father but also with his best friend, Howie (a nicely vulnerable haemophiliac), and his girlfriend Connie. Jazz’s feeling for her seem to be above board and his urges are entirely natural, but his personal history gives him pause. This is a young man threatened by his own sexuality: if he lets it out of the box, will he inherit his father’s appalling inclinations?
It’s an unusual coming-of-age story, that’s for sure. There are aspects which require an awful lot of suspension of disbelief – Jazz being involved as a consultant by the NYPD for instance, or an FBI agent’s acceptance of the notion of deliberately setting out to kill a felon. The protagonists, both Jazz and Connie alike, also suffered from that amazing fictional asset of being awesomely smart for most of the time (and able to make connections which every law enforcement agency had missed), but capable of doing the dumbest things imaginable when the plot calls upon them to be isolated, vulnerable and ready to stick their heads into a hungry lion’s mouth.
Balancing those downsides, much of the book is smartly observed, well described and benefits from snappy dialogue. Howie offers more than light relief; he’s a reminder of the aching frustration of adolescence but he does have a brilliant turn of phrase. The scenes where country-boy Jazz first encounters the big city are also cleverly rendered, capturing the overwhelming everythingness of the unrelenting urban environment.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the central conceit, the ‘game’ of the title. It’s an innovative plot device for a genre which you might think has been done to death (sorry…) already. If you pay a lot of attention to the sequence of murders, and have a familiarity with NYC, then you may be able to figure out what’s going on before the big reveal. It was immensely entertaining (yes, yes, I know it’s bad to be entertained by a series of gruesome murders. But isn’t that why we read them?)
However… the final chapter of the book (which I can’t call an ‘ending’) really irritated me. It’s an outright cliff-hanger. The car has driven over the edge with the hero trapped inside, and the heroine is chained to the railways tracks with a locomotive bearing down on her. (Not literally, you understand). There’s no resolution, no conclusion: the final page may as well say TO BE CONTINUED… And while I don’t mind a plot which spreads out over several books, I do prefer each episode to be a stand-alone story in its own right. A book should have a beginning, middle and end. This one has no end, and that left me feeling more than a little short-changed.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that ‘Game’ wasn’t flagged up as being YA in any way: we found it in the mainstream crime section of our local bookshop. The author’s website and publisher blurb certainly suggest it’s intended for an under-21 audience, and the protagonists are in their teens. The subject matter may be a bit graphic for delicate developing personalities, however.*
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
‘Game’ by Barry Lyga is available as an ebook and paperback at Amazon
*Although, of course, reading Red Dragon when I was 14 obviously didn’t do me any harm. Look how well-adjusted I turned out to be…