Scavenger! It's awful!

I want to talk about Scavenger, and why I consider it one of the worst novels I've ever read.  A 2000 novel by Tom Savage, Scavenger tells the story of one Mark Stevenson, who is offered the chance to play a madman's game in the hopes of discovering the truth behind the murder of his entire family a decade earlier. Perfectly fine premise, but it gets into trouble by being a Tom Savage novel. What do I mean by this?

Well, to be blunt, Tom has a bad habit of cheating. He doesn't outright lie to the reader creating plot holes, he practices something far more insidious - his most effective trick is to have an unexpected character turn out to a sociopathic killer right at the end of the story with no lead-up to hint at the reveal. He banks on his audience being so shocked by the pulled rug that they don't go back and think too hard about the suddenly-evil character's actions and thoughts in the rest of the book. A great writer will fill their books with tiny hints leading up to the reveal, and bits of dialogue or cast-off thoughts and actions that only make sense in retrospect. Tom Savage is not a great writer, and his manipulative practices ensure that his books can only be read once - when you go back, knowing full well which character is the villain, their actions and motivations invariably make no sense whatsoever.

A perfect example of this is his novel Valentine - it involves a woman being stalked by a psychotic man from her past. It features chapters told from the point of view of a stalker, stalking her. Then, for the shocking reveal, we discover that the stalker stalking her was a completely benign figure just looking to get revenge on the killer, who'd also murdered his sister some time previously. While this doesn't seem like cheating on its face, and makes for an effective twist, going back and reading the book will reveal that the stalker's behaviour and thoughts make absolutely no sense if he's not the story's villain. If he didn't have any ill intentions towards the main character, there's absolutely no way for him to behave and think the way he does.

Which brings me to Scavenger, the most egregious example of Tom's cheating. I struggled to figure out the best way to review this book - it's difficult to explain exactly how bad it is without going through the entire plot, and if I'm doing that, I might as well just encourage people to go ahead and read the darned thing. Seeing as that's the last thing I want, I'm instead going to lay out the sequence of events as cleanly as possible - hopefully proving that when looked at dispassionately (at first, there will be commentary as well), the events of the book will be self-evidently idiotic. It's not going to be the cleanest of reviews, though, as I'll have to jump back and forth in timelines to put things in the most helpful order, and of course I'll have to spoil every surprise the book has to offer right away, so if anyone is interested in reading it, they should go and do that now, before returning to the review proper.

All aboard, then.

The book opens with an extended scene of the villain reading a novel named 'Dark Desire', which is an incredibly generic title for a book. The villain reflects on how the novel is a thinly-veiled version of a real-life crime, not unlike R.G. Belsky's 'Loverboy'. His key observation - the author of the book seems to know too much about the murders. This leads to fantasies about killing the author, who he believes is the man he's dreamed of finding ever since a mysterious incident in his own past. He decides that he's going to develop a scheme that will end with the author's torture and death, if at all possible.

So right off the bat, Tom is stacking the deck really, really heavily with the introduction. He paints the villain as vain and cruel, overly impressed with his own intellect, and as the scion of a wealthy upper-class family. He literally has a manservant and lives on a mansion atop a hill. Not subtle stuff here, even before we get to the torture fantasies. Given what I've already explained about Savage's M.O., it should be obvious that this is all misdirection, and the villain isn't the killer who murdered five different families a decade earlier. This is a completely reasonable assumption, but the truth is far more confusing and preposterous.

Before I can get to the main character, and how the story goes completely off the rails, I want to share this bit of text about the never-apprehended murderer that the book was written about:

"The Family Man was never apprehended, and now, so many years later, he was generally believed to be dead. It was the only way the experts could explain his silence, because no serial killer in history had simply stopped before: it went against everything that was known about them."

Zodiac, M-Fer. Also a couple of other examples, but again, Zodiac.

So, the author - he's one Mark Stevenson, and the book introduces him as he wins a literary award. So award-winning mystery author Tom Savage's latest main character is an award-winning mystery author? Gosh, if only this were a Adaptation type of situation, but no, it's just laziness. He's attending the ceremony with his fiancee, one Tracy Morgan, and given that this book was published by people living and working in New York in the year 2000, it really feels like someone, anyone, could have pointed out how incredibly distracting that name was going to be for the reader. Maybe this is an honest mistake, and Tom didn't even own a TV set at the time, but wow, should someone have taken care of this.

The next day, he receives a mysterious floppy disc (2000!) with a letter on it. I'm going to print the letter here, as it's important to allow me to discuss what comes next-

"Dear Mr. Stevenson,

I am writing to you regarding your excellent novel, Dark Desire. It is truly extraordinary, and I understand you have just received an award for it. Congratulations!
My purpose in writing, however, is somewhat more provocative. You see, it is obvious to me— and, I presume, everyone else— that the novel is based on the “Family Man” case of a few years ago. You never stated that; in fact, you went to great lengths to stay in the realm of fiction. But your final chapters, in which the serial killer is tracked and apprehended, were entirely your own contribution. As we all know, the real-life prototype of your character was never brought to justice. And that is what I want to address.
I have always been a lover of games, Mr. Stevenson, and I would like to propose that you play one with me now. I could never find anyone who was willing to play chess or Scrabble with me, as I always seemed to win, and yes, I am one of those annoying people who do the Sunday Times crossword puzzle in ink. But the game I propose is one of my own devising . You are obviously as fascinated by The Family Man as I am, and I think you may find my game amusing, not to mention enlightening.
You see , I know a great deal about The Family Man, more than anyone else. And I am willing to share my knowledge with you. You are a wonderful writer, and I think it is time The Family Man— well, went public. I realize that he has long been presumed dead. For purposes of our game, let us both agree right now that this is true. But his story should be written down, and there is no one more suitable for the job than you.
Are you interested? I hope so. But, for reasons that should be obvious to you, I can’t simply approach you directly with the information I wish to impart. That is why I have come up with my game, which I have designed along the lines of a scavenger hunt. I will provide you with a series of instructions that will lead you to certain locations, where you will be responsible for finding certain articles. Each instruction will have a time limit for completion. They will eventually lead you to— well, to what you may want to know. Total playing time, if all goes well, will be one week. Today (as you read this) is Saturday: the game will begin at midnight tonight and end next Saturday at midnight. There will be some expense involved, but I am willing to provide for that.
As I cannot approach you, and as you do not know who I am, I realize that there is no way for you to answer me. So here is what I propose we do: I will give you your first clue now. If you wish to play— if you are interested in the “prize” to which I have obliquely referred— simply begin. This will indicate that you are willing, and I will contrive further communication. How does that sound?
Before you begin, I must point out to you that there are three rules in my game that must be followed at all times . Failure to do so will mean you automatically forfeit, and the game will end then and there. And you will never, ever hear from me again. I trust I make myself clear. These are the rules:

1) You must follow my scenario strictly, as it is presented to you. You may not at any time deviate from the order in which the clues arrive and the articles are retrieved.
2) No one else may know about the game. No one. Of course I mean the authorities, but I mean everyone else as well. Your friends, your associates— everyone. This is strictly between you and me.
3) Once you have begun to play, you cannot stop for any reason until the game is over.

So, now you know the rules . I hope I have piqued your interest with this. It will be a most entertaining game, I promise. And your prize for successfully completing it is certainly all that a former journalist such as yourself could want. Without boasting, I can safely say it is one of the truly big “scoops” of the century.
If you choose not to play , I thank you for your time and attention regarding this missive, and I wish you all the best in your future writing career. But I will be presumptuous and assume that you want to continue. If so, your first instruction is quite easy:


You have twenty-four hours, beginning at midnight tonight. Happy hunting! You may call me:

If you actually made it all the way through that, you have my utmost respect and appreciation. Now let's continue. For this next part to make sense, I have to provide two pieces of information that Tom withholds for quite a few pages, but first, let's consider how this is meant to be taken. Mark has written a book about 'The Family Man', and now 'Scavenger' is going to reveal his identity. We'd be forgiven for thinking - and Mark outright interprets the letter as claiming - that the person who sent it is, in fact, the Family Man, and he wants to trap Mark in a sinister web of death.

This gives Mark a borderline plausible motivation for playing the game - after all, he's got to be curious about the identity of the Family Man, right? After all, he wrote a book in which the killer was apprehended, unlike the real case, so he'd have to be interested in a chance to solve it for real. Weighed against the danger of playing a serial killer's game - one that can only be intended to wrap up in his death - it's not super-plausible that he'd play along without telling his loved ones or the police. Tom needs to offer one hell of a motivation for Mark to actually play along. Luckily, he has one in reserve, but he doesn't bring it out until after Mark is already on the trail, which can make that decision seem a little contrived.

That motivation - Mark Stevenson is actually Matthew Farmer, one of three surviving immediate family members of the five families that the Family Man exterminated. He was spared because he was estranged, and not with them for Christmas. Of the other survivors, one is unimportant - a woman who was out partying before Mardi Gras, and missed her family's death. The last is Seth Carlin, who is Scavenger.

Tom conceals this fact by obscuring facts to a ludicrous extent. In the prologue Tom has Scavenger observe mementoes of his famous musician parents, but when writing about the Family Man murders, he gives plenty of details about the four other families, but is oddly close-lipped about the Carlins - because he's worried that his audience will guess Scavenger's identity too early in the story. Which is strange for two reasons - the first, how many people a realistically are going to remember two lines about musicians and a piano fifty pages earlier? Second, and most importantly - knowing Scavenger's name and the fact that his family were victims of the Family Man doesn't have any particular effect on how the narrative plays out to the reader. It's not like this is information Mark has that will effect his choices in the story, it's just something that the reader could have figured out - it would have even worked as a nice misdirect. Plenty of ink is devoted to the fact that Mark was briefly suspected of killing his family by the FBI, so the reader could think they were getting ahead of the book by coming to the conclusion that all along the FBI had been chasing after the wrong estranged son.

Which brings me back to Mark's motivation for agreeing to Scavenger's scheme. Tom makes a good case for playing the game. A dead family, an unsolved mystery, that's the kind of compulsion that could get Mark to risk anything to find out the truth. Here's an excerpt from when he goes to the first stop on Scavenger's itinerary - the house where the final family was murdered, on Easter 10 years earlier.

"He knew that his shivering was not caused by the wind, but by the cold fury that suffused him as he stared up at this house. The fury that had prompted him, after all these years, to write Dark Desire."

Given those circumstances, and the passion of his inner thoughts, I'd buy his willingness to go to extreme lengths to uncover the Family Man's identity.

One thing though.

Mark actually did kill his family. He was the Family Man. He murdered two other families, one on Mardi Gras, one on the Fourth of July, and then his own on Christmas, assuming that the police would be so busy looking for a crazed serial killer that he'd skate on the crimes. Which is exactly what happened.

So let's return once again to the question of motive. Specifically, what is Mark's motive for playing Scavenger's game?

Imagine you're the character - you killed three families in order to hide your murder of your own family. The FBI thought it was you for a while, but then two more murders happened, and they moved on. Pointedly, you're aware that you didn't commit these last two family annihilations, which means that there is a copycat out there somewhere. Eventually you write a book about the murders - although I'm not sure entirely why, but whatever - and someone contacts you with the proposition to go on a scavenger hunt to discover the Family Man's identity. What possible reason could you have for taking part in it?

Mark isn't depicted as being a stupid person - especially since we're expected to believe that he committed three perfect murders, traveling cross-country around the holidays, sneaking into homes in the middle of the night, silently killing entire families, and then setting up elaborate tableaus for others to discover, all without leaving any meaningful evidence. That obviously requires a careful, analytical mind - so how would he react to this threat by Scavenger? An innocent man interested in discovering who killed his family might well play the game. A killer primarily interested in keeping his freedom absolutely would not - at least not in the way Mark does.

Giving the situation even five minutes thought would reveal that there are only two realistic possibilities for who Scavenger is - either he's the copycat, who's interested in tracking down the real Family Man for nefarious purposes, or he's a creation of law enforcement personnel, who are annoyed that Mark wrote a book about his own family's murder and are willing to go to elaborate lengths to catch him.

In the end, it turns out both answers are right, but that's not important at the moment - what matters is that in neither of those situations does Mark have any reason to play along with Scavenger's game. If it's the copycat, there's no upside to playing the game. The best possible result is that he finds out who the copycat is - but that's a goal he has no interest in achieving. Yes, Scavenger has implied that he knows who the Family Man is, but there's no reason to believe that he has any concrete evidence that could be threatening to Mark - spoiler alert: he doesn't - and even if he did, and claimed that he did, which he doesn't, Mark would have no reason to think that he'd have a chance at getting the information by continuing to play the game. Scavenger doesn't have any information Mark wants, and he's not a demonstrable threat - so why go along with his game?

More importantly, why not go to the police? Yes, Scavenger tells him not to, but that's not actually a reason. Mark's first concern is protecting his own freedom, and going to the FBI would absolutely be the smartest thing he could possibly do. All he would have to do is give them all of the information and let them run with it - they'd either encourage him to go along with the game while being monitored, or they'd just investigate normally - but either way Mark would be covered, since he'd be acting like an innocent man. The absolute worst-case scenario is that Scavenger calls the game off because Mark has alerted the police - in which case Mark has lost absolutely nothing.

The 'going to the police' option works even better if it's a law enforcement setup - how are they going to get evidence against him if he's acting like an innocent man? While he has no motivation for playing the game in either case, it makes perfect sense to go to the police in both. Whether protecting himself from a madman, or simply demonstrating the supposed desire to solve the case that he 'should' be feeling, going to the police is the smartest possible move for a guilty person to make in this preposterous situation.

In Scavenger, Tom goes above and beyond all of his previous deceptive practices as an author. He lies on every page of the book, having Mark speak, think, and act like an innocent man desperate to discover the truth right up until that truth is actually revealed, solely so that the audience will be surprised. This is an audience betrayal of the absolute worst kind, the act of an author unable to write a genuinely shocking reveal, resorting instead to move from merely misleading his readers to outright fraud and hoping that their memories are bad enough that they won't realize that his big reveal has invalidated every single thing that happened on every other page of the book.

So Scavenger is a dishonest disaster from beginning to end. There's one thing I haven't covered yet, however, and it's the kicker that puts all the pieces into place to make this the absolute worst mystery novel I've ever read - or at least tied with R.G. Belsky's 'Loverboy' - but I'll get to that next time.

1 comment:

busterggi said...

Somehow I think your review is more suspenseful than the book.