This is not ‘giving away’ the story, as the novel — not a whodunit, more of a why-did-he-do-it? — concerns itself with the psychology of the delusional Albert Jackson and his desire to have a book written about him.
He wants it to be a mixture of fact and fiction, in order to be understood, particularly by his two grown-up children. He wants their empathy but is sane enough to realise that he’ll never elicit sympathy.
Confined to an asylum in the care of a psychiatrist, Dr Novak, Jackson chooses a local writer, Charlie Vaughan, from the anonymous seaside town he lives in, to tell his story. Vaughan is not successful writer but Jackson admires a novel he has written and is clear he wants a fiction writer rather than a sensation-seeking hack to expedite the commission for a relatively modest fee.
The facts of Jackson’s life before he committed the pre-meditated murder are pedestrian. He is 49 years of age and works as a secondary school teacher. He is not interested in climbing the career ladder at his school. A feeling of being a failure at life, Jackson finds purpose when he becomes infatuated with a colleague, Aimeé Quinn. However, when he notices “a seal of flabby fat oozing above my belt”, he thinks of “the hopelessness of Aimeé and me”. But that doesn’t stop him fantasising about her and becoming aggrieved when one of the other teachers, Nicky Jones, seems to be successfully pursuing Aimeé.
The novel, full of psychological insights and Jackson’s misanthropy, is intriguing and mostly written without overblown artifice. The author, however, sometimes uses unusual words such as ‘otiose’ (which means functionless). He digs deep to tell this story of a man who has Walter Mitty-like tendencies.
As Dr Novak explains to Vaughan, Jackson is often out of touch with reality. “You will see. In heightened moments he is more Albert The Lothario, The Troubled Genius, The Hero, The Put Upon Man, The Intellectual Powerhouse, The Wisened Recluse, The Brooding Love Interest, than his real self — Albert Jackson.” Rereading Dostoevsky for the first time in decades, Jackson “became exhilarated by the unnerving parallels between Rasknolnikov and me”.
He feels he is being called “by a higher purpose”. He has a superiority complex. He sees Val as “expendable”. She is “a cancer at the heart of purity...Without her, potential stretched out in all directions”. There is “the chance to be better...to be sexually available”. Drinking a rum and Coke, he imagines that with Val gone, Aimeé will be impressed by “my widower’s resilience”.
He thinks that friends will commend him on Aimeé’s maturity (she is a lot younger than Jackson) and they’ll come around to accepting her “not as Val’s usurper but as an appendage of my indomitable happiness”. Val really annoys him. While she seems like a perfectly pleasant person, she can utter devastating lines aimed at taking her husband down a peg or two. She teases Jackson about his crush on Aimeé, having found out that the attractive young teacher is seeing Jones. “Has your spindly ego been piqued?” Val asks her husband.
Jackson is mostly caught up in his ego and has very little heart, although he thinks he’s a sensitive misunderstood soul. The reader learns about him through a narrative that relies to some extent on other people’s testimonies.
But Jackson gives himself away as a fantasist who finally becomes a man of action, something to which he aspires. It is a heinous action that will define him as he attempts to be restored to the world through Vaughan’s writing.
This is an intriguing take on the murder story genre. It’s as chilling as Jackson’s cold-blooded murder of an innocent woman.