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Book review: <i>Hell’s Kitchen</i> by Chris Niles



If this was a TV program it would be the newest TV show taking America by storm with controversy and characters and more swearing and nudity and violence than last week and a huge budget and great music, but which is, one cannot help noticing quite quickly, STILL ACTUALLY some bullshit about policepersons edging through apartment doorways etc.

Cover

A workmanlike Photoshop effort, involving body parts tucked into an otherwise normal-looking refrigerator interior. More cartoonish than it sounds, and suits the story, too, which is always a plus.

Plot

The interconnecting paths of a bunch of New Yorkers, most united by their borderline desperation to find housing in Manhattan; sexy ex-pats, a young couple from Michigan, a gay news anchorwoman and, last but not least, a wealthy young sociopathic killer. I don’t know what else to say, really.

The good

Niles conveys the implacable urgency of New York life for the peons on the footpaths effectively, which is to say she avoids the clichés of Sex-City socialites and gritty ground-level hustling in favour of the realities of the middle class as they try to stay afloat in the currents of their choosing.
The male characters are as well written as the females—were it not for the author bio (and perhaps the slightly over-drawn nature of the hunky Irishman) I would not have known this was a female author. Not that it matters a great deal, I’m just saying that the author’s intent is definitely thrills first, fun second, politics thirteenth.

Niles tends that all-important thriller element, pacing, well. The book’s first third is particularly good, involving us immediately in all the main characters, and drawing us into the story with a punchy rhythm of page breaks as Niles switches between them. It’s a very effective method of both bringing the reader straight into the story whilst rapidly introducing a large group of characters. The fact that they’re all geographically close makes this easier for the audience, and, again, the sense of place is a big drawcard (the book is named after an area of New York, after all).

The bad

Of course, aside from having the word “Hell” in the title, it doesn’t really make sense, when you think about it. The bad guy never actually eats anybody, and he only keeps the corpses in his fridge for practical reasons. I mention this because it’s symptomatic of what’s wrong with this book—a lot of it FEELS as though it makes sense without actually taking the last step and doing so. I wasn’t being hyperbolic when I said that I think pacing is the most important aspect of a thriller—in fact, I’m more susceptible to sleight passing as weight than most, particularly when it has the same sense of momentum. Even given that, though, there’s some lazy shit going on here. For instance, the bad guy is a nut, I understand this, but his motivations, beyond that of some self-help book (about which we are never given anything more than the faintest of hints), are just as hazy to us as they seem to be to him. Okay, fine, perhaps Niles is aiming to portray a truly motive-less madman (and there are moments when she succeeds, don’t get me wrong—the character’s cheery and utterly baseless optimism toward the thought processes of women is quite eerie)—but the character has no meat. Without a method to his insanity—there are hints of an overall scheme, none of which: a) are explained further; or b) come to anything—or any genuine menace (he’s physically unthreatening, stupid, deluded and mostly quite placid) the lynchpin character is functionally absent, giving the entire book a hollow core, which is an impression thoroughly reinforced by the fact that the only two innocent characters in the whole story get beaten to death on page fifty.

In short, despite occasionally admirable attempts to make him work, I was unafraid of the murderer, not to mention unattracted to the sex kitten, irritated by the predictability of the “good” characters, and actively pissed off at the shiftless leading man (who ruins the author’s otherwise appealingly androgynous prose by being exactly the kind of character only a woman would try to make you care about, i.e. an Irish wannabe writer who never writes, never works, sponges off his relatives but gets laid all the time because of his accent and muscular man-titties, sorry, I mean wit and smouldering good looks).

What I learnt

Atmosphere and pacing alone do not a thriller make. Although it’s quite a close-run thing sometimes.

In short

Title: Hell's Kitchen
Author: Chris Niles
Publisher: Akashic Books
ISBN: 1888451211
Year published: 2001
Pages: 325
Genre(s): Thriller

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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