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Stay Alive by Simon Kernick

Few are as comfortable in the breakneck-thriller realm as British writer Simon Kernick, and in his latest novel, he elevates the bad-men-hunting-young-girls-in-the-woods theme to a point where reading Stay Alive feels rather like a spectator sport, and you wonder whether there’s a budding serial killer inside you because it’s all a bit too enjoyable.

Officially, the only such killer in the cast is a lone sociopath known as The Disciple, who has been terrorizing the south of England for the past year. His gruesome MO involves targeting couples in isolated homes and conducting a specific ritual of torture and abasement before killing them. To add further frisson, there are indications of satanic worship.

All this suggests that you wouldn’t want to run into him in any circumstances, least of all in the manner lead damsel Amanda does in the adrenalized opening scene, when she comes home unannounced and a day early from a trip. She interrupts a masked man just as he has dispatched her husband and his mistress, and barely evades his knife herself.

DCS Mike Bolt, a thoroughly decent copper only three years from retirement, takes the case, having recently assumed the role of senior investigating officer in the Disciple murders following the previous SIO’s expiration from a massive, possibly stress-related heart attack – another death to add to the toll. There seems little doubt that the man Amanda eluded was the one responsible for nine known killings, and that he might come back for her, so protection is essential.

Needless to say, Amanda’s safe house proves insufficient, and thus kicks off a multi-character, deadly hide-and-seek that takes several directions, as a fleeing Amanda, chased into the Scottish hinterland by a posse of bent cops, partners with a pair of orphaned sisters, while a knight with shining handgun joins the pursuit. Lest the quota of implacable evil not be filled by the bloody carryings-on of The Discipline, there is also the estranged father of the aforementioned mistress, who takes the form of a shadowy Russian oligarch and becomes a person of interest to DCS Bolt.

Perhaps I sound unforgivably glib about what is a fairly hefty amount of shocking violence and bad behaviour, but Kernick’s light, speedy style makes the story too fun to be taken much to heart. For this reason, those who like their thrillers darker or more sober may be underwhelmed, though the writing is steady and confident, if unfancy, as befits the narrative.

Thanks to Kernick’s knack for switching comfortably between characters’ perspectives, as Stay Alive winds up we are furnished with a neat little reminder that the information we have is only as trustworthy as those who provided it. As any good cop would tell you, it doesn’t pay to assume.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones