Back in 1985 or so (it might have been ’86, but not much later than that), I was at my local library (kids, support your local library!) and while perusing the shelves, I happened to find a book that sounded interesting. Of course, it might have had something to do with the cover:
That’s the original hardcover cover, and it’s certainly striking. Well, as my parents never censored what I read or watched or listened to (I imagine they would have if I had really pushed on R-rated movies, but I don’t know), I picked it up as an impressionable 14- or 15-year-old (at the oldest). And dang, it became one of my favorite books. I still re-read it every once in a while, along with the many other novels Michael Slade has written (none of which are quite as good as this one, although they’re all pretty good). So let’s dive in!
Michael Slade is a pseudonym, largely used by Jay Clarke, who’s the driving force behind the novels. On this one, Clarke collaborated with two other men, but he’s also been assisted by his daughter over the years and I think now he’s largely working on his own. Clarke was a criminal lawyer in Vancouver for a decade before he decided to write, and his knowledge of both the city, the crime in the city, and the way the Royal Canadian Mounted Police does its thing is impressive. This and all the Slade novels are horror books to a degree, but the writers are smart enough to make them “realistic” – there’s nothing supernatural in the books, just the horrors that humans can come up with all on their own. The books are also police procedurals, as the RCMP tries to solve these terrible crimes and the main characters try to stay alive as they hunt the bad guys. In this book, someone is raping and killing women with long, black hair and cutting their heads off. Then they put the heads on sharpened sticks, photograph them, and send them to the police. Eventually, the RCMP calls Robert DeClercq, one of the legends of the force, out of retirement to find the bad guy. DeClercq is a good protagonist in this book – he’s been retired for over a decade, since his wife and daughter were killed by terrorists retaliating against DeClercq, so he’s carrying around a lot of guilt and regret. He’s remarried to a woman much younger than he, but she can’t have children, so she has some guilt as well. DeClercq killed the man who killed his daughter, so there’s that, too. There’s plenty of political pressure on DeClercq, as well, as panic begins to set in throughout Vancouver and women start attacking any men they see, sometimes with fatal results. Slade doesn’t forget the real-world implications of crime, which is interesting.
Slade sets the book in late 1982, which is somewhat important. Early on in his writing career, we got definite dates for when things happened, but as the years lengthened and Slade decided to use the same characters, he stopped using years because the books aged faster than the characters did. But setting the book in 1982 means that Slade can use certain events that he might not be able to use in books with no definitive dates. First and most important, women were allowed into the RCMP not long before the book is set, and the relations between the men of the force and the new women is an important part of the plot. Slade also traces some events back to the early days of the RCMP, and without giving too much away, he couldn’t have done that if the book weren’t set in 1982 or at least around the time he was writing it (the book was published in 1984). DeClercq lost his wife and daughter in the aftermath of the October Crisis in 1970, during which the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped Canada’s Deputy Premier, and the books references Clifford Olson, a serial killer who was active in Vancouver and was convicted in January 1982, not long before the events in the book occur. So the book has a ring of verisimilitude not only in how Slade shows the way the RCMP works, but also in how he deals with current events. There are many characters in the book, but beside DeClercq, the main ones are two sets of Mounties who form what DeClercq calls “flying patrols” – cops who can move quickly and remain outside the framework of the investigation so they can work on hunches without becoming too tied to one theory. The two flying patrols Slade focuses on are male/female pairs, one of which has a fairly mild-mannered pair who get along well, the other, more important one of which features Rick Scarlett and Katherine Spann, two aggressive personalities who work well together even though Scarlett is a male chauvinist and Spann is fiercely desirous to be judged solely on her record. Of course Scarlett thinks that women, even if they might be good cops (and he knows that Spann is a good cop), are first and foremost sex objects, and in a book with women who are sexually violated before they’re killed, that attitude becomes uglier as the book goes on. Slade has many other interesting characters too, and what’s gripping about the book is that they’re all damaged in some way or another, so even though the identity of the murderer is unknown, there’s plenty of psychological trauma, from DeClercq on down, to go around.
And the mystery is gripping, too. Later Slade books become much more gruesome, which doesn’t bother me too much, but occasionally they veer a bit into the cartoonish. In Headhunter, the violence is gory, sure, but it’s restrained just enough to be more visceral, real, and horrific. Despite the RCMP’s efforts, the killer remains elusive, but that doesn’t make the killer supernatural, just clever. In some of the later books, logic seems to break down as the killers become more and more ahead of the game, prepared for every contingency, even the most ridiculous. That isn’t the case in this book – the killer is certainly well-prepared, but not to a Joker-in-Dark Knight degree. Slade does a good job giving us some historical context for the killings, but he remains focused on the police, so as they uncover clues, so do we. It’s not a “fair-play” mystery – there aren’t a lot of clues that we can decipher as we’re going along, and when the police begin to figure out who the killer is, they do it in a relatively straight-forward way, in that they simply find one clue we’ve never seen before, which moves them to another, and so on. “Fair-play” mysteries have clues scattered throughout the narrative that allow the reader to solve it before the police, but except for one very subtle clue that becomes obvious in hindsight (and still doesn’t “solve” the mystery by any means), there’s nothing like that here. It really is a police procedural, so the cops do their job, a lot of which means hunting down various suspects and trying to connect them to the murders. It’s still gripping reading, but I don’t think you can figure it out beforehand. And the identity of the killer is great, too – one of the better reveals I’ve ever read. So that’s pretty cool.
Slade writes in a terse, no-nonsense style, and while there are some passages of excellent prose, for the most part the writing is driven by the plot, so it’s not the most enthralling you’ve ever read. That’s okay, though, because the plot is so powerful and Slade does quite a good job building tension, plus his descriptions of the violence is very well done, too (which is a strange thing to compliment, but there it is). He does a good job with character descriptions – again, it’s not beautiful prose, but it gives us a good idea of the people trying to get the killer, and his descriptions of the Rockies in 1897 and New Orleans in the 1950s contrast nicely with the modern-day sections. He goes off on some tangents occasionally that might not seem necessary but do a good job creating a specific time and place, and his style is such that you power right through those. In later books, he goes to more exotic places, and he continues with this kind of good place-setting. In this book, he does a very good job giving us a sense of Vancouver, rain and heroin and mountains and everything.
Slade (and Clarke) found that writing books was a pretty good gig, and in the next 25 years, we got 13 more novels. The protagonist of his second book eventually teamed up with DeClercq, and the two of them became co-protagonists, with various characters from this book and others showing up as needed. I’ve read all of them, and recently, I discovered that Clarke is doing something a bit unusual. His latest book isn’t new, it’s a “re-imagining” of this one, as Clarke notes that the ubiquity of the internet has allowed him to research topics much more thoroughly, so presumably he’s adding some depth to certain parts of the book. I haven’t read that one yet; I’ll have to pick it up to see what’s what.
I guess Slade’s books sell well enough for Clarke and whoever is writing with him to do them, but when great horror stories come up, you don’t hear about him. That’s too bad, because the police procedural aspects of the books make them unique and fascinating, as the way the RCMP works really does feel real (and Clarke has mentioned that the Mounties tend to be big fans of his work and allow him access to their procedures, so no doubt those parts of the books are “real”). The books never get better than Headhunter, and while some are worse, they generally maintain the entertaining level set by this first one. As I noted, Slade continues to up the ante, so the books get bloodier and occasionally ridiculous, but Slade manages to keep the human core of the characters, so they’re always tense because we honestly enjoy spending time with the cops and we never know when one of them will get killed. If you’re a fan of horror and you’ve never gotten into Michael Slade, you really should try this book. It’s just a fun, gripping read, and it deserves to be known by a wider audience!
(And, of course, you can buy it at the link below and I’ll get a tiny piece of it. No pressure, though!)