The Tribute, John Byron
The media release that came with John Byron's debut thriller opens with the following:
"Meticulously researched, hugely ambitious and superbly crafted THE TRIBUTE is the most original thriller of 2021 and heralds John Byron as a formidable new player in Australian crime writing.
Byron deftly skewers the genre to craft a subversive take on toxic masculinity, misogyny and coercive control, told through an irresistible crime narrative."
If there was ever a time, and a crime book, that requires everyone to put aside their dislike of the endless retelling of the serial killer concept, then publication of THE TRIBUTE is it.
As all the publicity says, this is a crime novel, ostensibly about a particularly gory serial killer, hell-bent on recreating scenes from the FABRICA, the 16th-century foundation text of modern anatomy. Despite the sense of foreboding that the concept of a hell-bent, mad, dangerous serial killer with an obsession for anatomical dissection brings with it, there's something refreshingly matter-of-fact about that aspect of the novel, allowing the reader to understand what's happening, without having to spend too much time wondering why or "eavesdropping" on the mad, although there is some gore so be aware if you're particularly sensitive.
What can't be underestimated, or overlooked, however is the way that the issues of toxic masculinity, misogyny and coercive control are built into this novel. The author's comments (which really should be read in their entirety after you've finished the novel) include this snippet:
"...I wrote this novel to explore the mythology about the top blokes, about the tough-but-fair, hardworking salt-of-the-earth types, about the family men next door and the pillars of the community who everyone swears would never abuse their partners, not in a million years."
Not that THE TRIBUTE gets into virtue signalling, lecturing or even pillory. Rather what it does is provide a clear, devastating blueprint of an abusive relationship, from the childhood manifestations, through to the small acts of ongoing control and manipulation, the gaslighting, the put-downs, the increasing nastiness, right up to the outright abuse, and a series of twists that are brutal and uncomfortably real. What's particularly frightening is the serious exploration of the power imbalance in a lot of these situations, very sobering the more you think about it. It lays bare the myth of the good bloke, skewers the claims of lack of awareness and reaction from the people around them, and shows there is often somebody who can see through the bullshit. All while carrying forward an urgent, and realistic hunt for a serial killer who is targeting seemingly random victims, killing and dissecting in a clinical, forensic method, leaving no trace, providing an increasingly desperate investigative team with very little to go on. The way that the layer edges in this novel are blended together is really incredibly clever.
THE TRIBUTE might quite rightly be considered ambitious, but whatever plans there were when this novel was conceived (and I'd say from the author's notes there is a lot that he feels needs to be said), it is brilliantly written, cleverly constructed and extremely telling.
If, like this reader, you come to it as a crime novel, with some trepidation about yet another serial killer narrative, park those concerns and go with the author on this one. Really good crime fiction has often been the vehicle through which society can view it's own failings and THE TRIBUTE is providing a very timely opportunity to do that in spades.
A serial killer is stalking through Sydney, hell-bent on recreating scenes from the Fabrica, the 16th-century foundation text of modern European anatomy. The spate of cold, methodical attacks has the city on edge, but the serial killer may not even be the darkest player in this story.
Desperate for a breakthrough, decorated homicide detective David Murphy draws into the case his art historian sister, Joanna, and his wife, Sylvia. Unravelling the mystery of who is behind the killings pushes each beyond the limits of what they thought possible.
The Tribute is a subversive take on modern masculinity and misogyny told through an irresistible crime narrative. Dark and unpredictable, chilling but sympathetic, it weaves a tapestry of narrative threads towards a mesmerizing climax that will challenge the way you think about everyone you meet.