Reading the patterns
The psychologically flawed detective is everywhere, from television's “Monk” (with OCD) to Jonathan Lethem's award-winning novel “Motherless Brooklyn” (whose main character has Tourette's). In “The Uninvited,” British writer Liz Jensen brings us Hesketh Lock, an elite, handsome corporate investigator with Asperger's syndrome who must confront a world sliding into chaos.
Lock is good at reading patterns, in part, because he looks past human emotions. In fact, he's oblivious to them — it's how his disorder manifests. As his ex-girlfriend bitterly puts it, he's “a robot made of meat.”
She lives in London with her 7-year-old son; Lock moved to a remote Scottish island after their relationship ended. He doesn't quite have the wiring to come out and say it, but he is hurt by the breakup and feels a paternal tug toward the boy.
The relationship among them becomes important about halfway through the book, after a strange condition, in which children behave like savages, has spread across the globe. Maybe they're infected. Maybe they're haunted. Maybe they're having psychotic episodes. What is for sure is that they're murderers.
Little children, pre-adolescents, are murdering their parents. This is where the book begins — the first shadows of the end times arriving in the form of a 5-year-old with a nail gun.
Jensen is a bestselling author in England. In her seven previous novels, she has slipped between and across genres. She's written gothic, frightening futurism and psychological thrillers. In this book, she combines dystopia and mystery in a light read that sometimes feels as quickly paced as a television show.
The puzzle of what's going on with the children and how it begins to erode the structures of our civilization has all the aspects of a page-turning thriller. However, it takes a while to get going.
First, we follow Lock's apparently unconnected investigation of whistle-blowing and sabotage at various multinationals. His company works in corporate malfeasance and damage control. He sorts through the avalanche of data and rumor and susses out the sources, reporting back to his boss. He is hopeless at comforting a weeping executive, but he is good at his job.
Lock travels to far-flung parts of the globe, picking up languages with remarkable speed and slowly making connections among isolated events. He observes adults who seem to be acting outside of their control, first harming their environments and then themselves. He witnesses more than one suicide.
Bad behavior, on the part of adults and children, disrupts the normal flow of daily life. There are accidents and disrupted schedules and days with no school. Social media inflames rumor, until the Internet ceases to become reliable. A racially changed future looms.
One nice thing about Lock's role as a business consultant is that it's never his job to stop what's happening; he's just trying to understand it.
And he's been amassing knowledge. He sifts through the legends and religions of different cultures, looking for a thread in how each explains the phenomena around them. Random details such as a dead man's stockpile of seaweed become important clues. What's happening with the adults and what's happening with the children may indeed be connected. When he returns to London, he must confront the threat to Freddy, his ex's son.
For Lock, this investigation challenges the very core of his belief system. He's such a rationalist that his boss calls him Spock, like the supremely logical “Star Trek” character. His studies included mythology because he finds it foreign and fascinating. Ghost stories, possessions, visitations: None is possible.
Yet, here we run into the problem of Lock as a narrator: To the reader of a dystopian novel, all of the above are in the realm of possibility. We gobble down zombies in “The Walking Dead.” We shiver at adults so corrupt they force teenagers to fight to the death in “The Hunger Games.” We are ready to imagine the worst, in any supernatural shape or frightening form. Lock — his name is no coincidence — cannot imagine beyond what he can prove.
So the reader is at an advantage: We can see around Lock's blind spots. That's the case when it comes to figuring out the mystery, and it's the case when it comes to the emotional lives of people around him. He doesn't tell us who his ex-girlfriend had an affair with, but it's not hard to guess.
There is something exciting about being a step ahead of the protagonist in a story — in a horror movie, we often know where the killer is hiding — but get too far ahead, and the tension goes slack. Ultimately, Lock's limitations come off as more gimmick than essential, and this promising story fails to unfold in surprising ways.
Carolyn Kellogg is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.