Motive X is most definitely a story which starts in the middle. Amid the multiple plotlines there lurks a self-contained mystery of grisly killings, but that plot is almost overwhelmed by the series’ ongoing themes: the catastrophic domestic situation of police detective Fabian Risk and his dysfunctional family; the catastrophic personal life of his boss and team-leader; the catastrophic marital life of his female colleague whose partner harbours unpalatable political views and has been cheating to boot; the secret killing spree of an almost uncatchable criminal who has been hiding in plain sight for the past couple of books.
And that’s only about half of the subplots. If you haven’t read any of the preceding books then this is not the place to start!
The standalone plot concerns a young refugee who is despatched in one of the author’s trademark inventively gruesome killings. This opens the door to a discussion on the rise of right-wing populism and the dangers of kneejerk political correctness. There’s a thought-provoking debate between two investigating officers who struggle to find a practical pathway between institutional racism and being blinded by cultural compassion. An asylum seeker living in a ghetto deserves no less justice than any other citizen… but the police can’t avoid the implication that his race or religion might’ve played a role in his death.
It’s a sticky subject which author Stefan Ahnhem handles deftly – bringing no small drama to the conflicting viewpoints with well-aimed arrows of cultural commentary. He’s such a skilled wordsmith that this passionate dispute racks up the tension and doesn’t derail the impetus of the investigation.
At times it’s a real wrench to put this book down; every cliff-hanger at the end of a snappy section encourages you to keep reading for just one more chapter – maybe another ten minutes…
Unfortunately, the other major plot now rears its head and consequently the storyline sags somewhat. Earlier hints are at last unveiled and we see the shenanigans of a completely unpredictable criminal; a calculating killer who’s developed an almost undetectable method of murder. Ahnhem acknowledges his inspiration for this concept – it comes from The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart which I also happen to have read.
The trouble is that all the aspects of The Dice Man which I found disagreeable are replicated in Motive X. Both authors get wrapped up in the tedious mechanics of the different dice and construct long-winded labyrinthine methods by which the roll of one type of a single dice sets up the parameters for the next pair of a different type which sets the location which triggers the next step of dice decision making and so on and on and on repeatedly for the date, time, victim, method, hidden pitfall and some other idiot variable until you’ve lost the will to turn the page.
It’s a bit weird, to be honest, given that Ahnhem usually writes like he drinks rocket fuel and ignites it with napalm. However, as I suffered through those sections in their entirety I can reveal that if you wish to miss them then the story won’t suffer much. Every time you-know-who takes out his dice, just skip to the final paragraph in the chapter.
In many ways, Motive X is a lot like the difficult middle episode of a movie trilogy. Or it’s like playing catch-up when you’ve come in halfway through a boxset. Just to confuse you further this is listed as the third Fabian Risk novel… when in fact it is the fourth.
If you’re already a fan of the series then you’ll find a massive amount to enjoy in this episode. It’s deliciously devious; often shocking, and so convoluted as to be entirely unpredictable. It’s not, however, the best of the series and it would certainly be a strange place to start.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Motive X by Stefan Ahnhem is available at Amazon