I have never read a Neil Cross book before, but I have seen the brilliant television series, Luther, written by Cross and played by Idris Elba. It was fitting then that I read this book first as it’s the prequel to the TV series and was written with Idris’ characterisation of Luther firmly in Cross’ mind.
This story tells of the events that lead up to Luther’s suspension, break down and the dissolution of his relationship with his wife. Related in sparse, powerful prose, we watch Luther unravel as, caught up in a crime-spree terrorising London, which begins when a couple are brutally slain in their homes, he becomes obsessive about catching the sadistic killer.
Unable to sleep, tell his wife how he feels about her or even ask his boss, Teller, for a holiday, Luther determines to catch the man who calls himself Peter Black before he can offend again.
Each step Luther takes, each decision he makes, the intensity of his mood and reactions, are captured there on the page, as is the viciousness of the crimes. While they’re not laboriously detailed, the murders and kidnappings are graphically described. The human deaths and injuries are hard enough to deal with, but there’s one against a dog that I simply could not read. My eyes skipped the page, I physically reacted to what I knew was happening and had a visceral response.
Cross is adept at exploring, in pared back language, the mind of not only killers but the brutes who roam our streets and demonstrating what it’s like to lack a conscience or, worse, to be convinced that what you’re doing isn’t wrong. Giving us insight into these people’s heads means we are given insight into what motivates them, glean an understanding of what constitutes evil – either through action or because they don’t know how to do or be anything else. It’s a difficult journey Cross takes us on, but one worth embarking upon. We vacillate between being appalled and more appalled, much like Luther. By the end of the book, you feel as if you’ve participated in an emotional and psychological marathon. It’s exhausting but in that strange way that even dark books can be, so worthwhile.
Though I knew the ending (fans of the TV series will, as the season one begins where this book leaves off), it didn’t spoil the tale. On the contrary it enriched the reading experience as there’s something gratifying and enormously interesting about discovering how a writer reaches a certain point, how she or she arcs the story, plots it out and develops the characters in order to reach that specific place – the intersection between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Cross is a master. Luther a masterpiece. A brilliant book but not for the feint-hearted.