FRANK GOLDEN’S second novel, The Night Game, is set in a fog-choked New York at winter’s end. It opens with Mary walking home from work one evening, and sensing danger. Oddly, Mary is rather fatalistic: “She accepts the reality of something malevolent about to possess her.”
When Mary gets home, she discovers that a man has left yet another menacing phone-call on her messaging service, threatening that he will ‘come and get her soon’.
It’s an appropriately creepy introduction to a novel billed as a psychological intrigue, and Mary’s life begins to spiral into fear, paranoia and crippling self-doubt. Why does the NYPD cop, Gerry Keaney, behave so bizarrely when he comes to investigate the threatening call? Might Mary’s ex-husband, David, whom she left due to ‘mental cruelty’, be terrifying her, or has he even worse in mind? Can Mary even trust her friend, Sheila, who comes to stay to help Mary over this difficult period? Does Sheila have sinister secrets of her own?
These are all potential plot developments in a conventional psychological thriller, but The Night Game is by no means a conventional novel. Golden is also an artist, filmmaker and poet, and the story is told in language that is as rich and dense as the fog that shrouds proceedings. As Mary walks home that first evening, “the sloot bellow of a distant foghorn gutters in the darkness,” and Mary “ … feels the freedom in occlusion, the draped secrecy of befogged streets, the cling and obfuscation of the particle world.”
This is not, however, language for its own sake. The vividly imagined storytelling is latticed with allusion, metaphor and double meaning, all of which become increasingly apt as Mary’s psychological condition is revealed.
She’s an ‘alternate’, a woman with disassociative identity disorder who is entirely conscious of — and, indeed, actively encourages the development of — the multiple personalities she inhabits.
The ‘domestic noir’ sub-genre of psychological thrillers thrives on the emotional intimacy between its protagonists, most notably in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep.
In The Night Game, however, Golden offers a fascinating twist on the conventions. Mary is every bit as ambiguously shape-shifting as her nemesis, but, despite her apparent vulnerability, she’s also equally dangerous: here, the hunted is as potentially lethal as the hunter, and Mary — who just so happens to keep ‘a malicious little knife’ in her cutlery drawer — has no intention of playing the passive victim.
The tension derived from Mary’s gradual metamorphosis results in a compelling tale that delves deep beneath the skin of the psychological thriller to explore unusually complex motivations. The story plunges into the dark gore of the human psyche, detailing brutal violence, abusive sex and harrowing self-harm.
Indeed, certain passages demand a strong stomach, and there are times when it feels as if Golden is almost daring the reader to glance away, for the sake of decorum, from Mary’s self-torturing agonies.
There are a number of improbable narrative segues (although such developments, it should be said, are fully in keeping with the nightmarish tone), and Golden’s emphasis on the psychological rather than the thriller means that the story occasionally veers into extended dialogues on therapy and disassociative identity disorder, which stall the story’s impetus.
For the most part, however, The Night Game is a challenging, transgressive and gripping read, a chilling portrait of one woman’s personal hell.