Every now and then, along comes one of those books. The sort that makes you look at people who make statements like "I NEVER read genre fiction" with just that little bit of sadness for what they are missing. That's not to say that BAD SIGNS is the sort of book that everyone is going to enjoy, but for any readers looking for something that will really make you think, take you into some very uncomfortable places, and be profoundly challenged, then it will be an outstanding book.
Strange as it may seem from the blurb, this is a book about hope. Albeit brutally wrapped up in human frailty. Returning to themes that Ellory has explored in earlier books - this is the story of young men confronted with an impossible situation, informed only by a deprived and desperate background, and the choices that they make. BAD SIGNS gives us two young boys, half-brothers, raised by the same mother, witnesses to the same violence and experiencing the desperation and degradation of State Care together, who make independent choices when pushed to the extreme. Fuelled by their respective ages, tempered undoubtedly by their allotted "roles" in their relationship, Clarence (Clay) Luckman and Elliott Danziger fight their dark stars in their own particular ways.
BAD SIGNS is populated by difficult people to read about - be it because of who they are, what they become, or what could happen to them. Psychopathic serial killer Earl Sheridan is a violent, out of control madman, who for some reason chooses not to kill the brothers in the aftermath of his escape. Which makes reading about their present in his thrall terrifying. What happens to those two boys while they are dragged across the country by this lunatic, violently killing just about everybody he encounters is profoundly discomforting reading. As each of the early chapters end by flagging the horror that is about to occur, it's really difficult to see where any hope is going to come from. Until the boys make their own choices, and the affects of that start to play out. Even then, the tension remains as you worry about how this will play out for the boys. The story remains disturbing and confronting, and the tension is ramped up even more as the reader is dragged, kicking and screaming into the minds of these two boys. Somehow, it's not long before a sense of hope does rise, and with that the tension gets even worse as the reader is left fighting a range of emotions - identification, terror, worry for the future, nervous about the potential resolutions.
It's clever this BAD SIGNS. It's incredibly clever. It's dark and dire, and frightening, disturbing and hypnotic. It's only when you've finished reading, when the resolution is known and the tension can finally abate, that there's a chance for this reader to look back and consider. What the book has done is take two characters from the same mother and childhood, with that slightly different genetic background, put them in dire circumstances and look closely, forensically at what becomes of each person. Whilst not everything is completely hopeless, and there are glimpses of bravery, belief, care, love, defiance and empathy, it is a careful study in human frailty, in madness, mistakes and the power of connections. It's a sobering reminder of how a single encounter can twist a life forever - good or bad, it just depends on how each individual plays the cards they are handed.
There were points where I had to step away for a little while. The violence, the psychopathy of Earl Sheridan, the circumstances of these two young boys, it's in your face. It's pointed, almost grotesque. It's frequently overwhelming. But it's not gratuitous, it draws a very clear picture of the peril of Clay and Elliott, as well as anyone who innocently comes across the worst of them.
Make no mistake, BAD SIGNS is not an easy book to read, it is, however, one hell of a very very very good book.