DCI John Luther is in extremis. He is in tears, his marriage is painfully disintegrating, he starts a riot, he breaks the law, he threatens to kill someone’s dog….
And it’s no wonder given the horrendous madman he is up against in this prequel to the BBC1 TV series starring Idris Elba. My expectations were low when this novel dropped through the letterbox. Surely it was just a TV tie-in. Surely novelist and Luther creator Neil Cross was just slumming it while getting Luther 3 ready for filming.
I was wrong. Cross, acclaimed author of thrillers such as Burial, is too good a writer to take his foot off the accelerator to produce a half-cocked TV spin-off novel. For fans of the series, the novel takes you further into the characters. Did you know Luther was a Bowie fan (favourite album, unsurprisingly, Low)? For those who haven’t seen the show, this works as chilling thriller with a haunting, very nasty serial killer.
Someone has targeted a London family, butchered and mutilated them. The violence depicted is extreme, even excessive. Cross does sketch out some psychological background for the killer, but even so, his hackings, beheadings and gougings are almost surreal and don’t, to me, seem commensurate with his level of childhood trauma.
But then the TV series is played out as a heightened kind of crime story, not too obsessed with realism. The last series, which was the second, veered towards the horror genre at times with its darkened rooms, creaking stairs and masked killers.
The strength of The Calling is that it is skilfully written, fuelled by tension and drama. Cross conjures up believable characters with immediacy and evokes recognisable settings in a few words. And Luther on the page, into whom Idris Elba’s mannerisms have seeped, is a magnetic anti-hero, as we get inside his head and have a handle on his angst and insights into the criminal mindsets.
It’s theme of fractured childhoods and child abduction are well explored. The ultra-violence does disturb the story’s cohesion – it’s as though Vlad the Impaler has time-travelled to London at times – but this is a thriller on page-turning steroids. Personally, I enjoyed it more than the TV series.