Thursday, April 16, 2015

Psychological suspense at its best

Jack of Spades

By Joyce Carol Oates

Publisher: Mysterious Press

Pub. Date: May 5, 2015

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Joyce Carol Oates is a unique voice in American literature. She is well respected in the literary circles yet writes in a style that is fine tuned to the mainstream public. She is also not afraid to enter dark regions that border on horror and suspense. In fact, I would say her best work sits comfortably in the shadows. Her newest novel, Jack of Spades doesn’t just border. It falls head first into the suspense thriller category with a dose of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the millennium set. Jack of Spades is psychological suspense at its finest.

Andrew J. Rush is a moderately successful writer of mysteries. His mystery novels are the proper and polite mainstream kind that reward good and punish evil. Others have dubbed him, a little embarrassingly to Andrew, as the “Gentleman’s Stephen King”. Yet unbeknownst to his publisher, agent and even his family, Andrew also writes under the name of Jack of Spades. Jack is the opposite of Andrew. His books are violent and filled with depravities. Jack’s persona is one of a sociopath with no real regard for morals and decency. Andrew keeps this literary double life going steadily until his daughter discovers a Jack of Spades novel and finds some disturbing scenes in it that are too close to her own childhood memories to be coincidental. Add onto this a lawsuit from a woman that claims Andrew J Rush’s regular novels are plagiarized from her own works. Rush is upset by this lawsuit but his alter ego may have other ways to deal with it. Rush at first understand the contrary thoughts going through his head and is able to tell right from wrong. But quickly things change and the reader wonders whether Andrew’s creation is part of the author’s mad genius or simply mad.

Oates’ novels are normally character driven and Jack of Spades is no exception. She is one of the living masters of psychological suspense. The strength in our protagonist Andrew is that he is normal. He may have a secret but his life is steady and regular. He has the love of his wife and children and the respect of his community. His violent novels under his pseudonym are the only strange part of his life. In a lesser writer’s hands, we might say his progression is unbelievable. But he is totally believable because we get a good view of the logical workings of his mind as he deals with his new found stresses. The first person narration is perfect for the development of the story and it works well as we find out more about Andrew that may explain the odd events. Each event and twist moves the narration along. The novel is relatively short, a little over 200 pages, but reads swiftly and feels shorter simply because it wastes no sentence and has no filler scenes.

It is hard to say much else about this novel for the thrill of the chase is learning what develops beyond the basic plot and setup. Writers of psychological horror and suspense would do well by studying each page of Jack of Spades for it is almost perfect in its structure and telling. Andrew J. Rush is a person of his times and maybe a warning, or even an arbiter of doom. for all those wanna-be writers out there. I can’t help thinking Joyce Carol Oates may be toying a little with her own mind in this sneaky little thriller and telling other authors that writing about the lines between reality and fantasy is a potentially fragile and dangerous thing.

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