A year after her boyfriend Ethan Wolfe was exposed as the Tell-Tale Heart Killer, Abby Maddox is rotting in jail for slitting detective Jerry Isaac's throat. Business has been handled one should say, but when girls start falling around town with "Free Abby Maddox" carved on their back, head all turn to her again and old wounds are reopened. Nobody really got over Ethan Wolfe yet and they're about to sink a little deeper into the nightmare.
Even after a year in prison, the younger woman's skin was luminous. Shiny back hair, longer now, spilled over one shoulder. Her eyes an unusually deep shade of a blue-violet, resembled Elizabeth Taylor's as did her full, naturally rosy lips. You almost forgot she dressed in drab gray prison scrubs. It was hard not to stare.
Last year, Jennifer Hillier released her first novel CREEP. It was a very good thriller, if a little conservative. It's not a secret that I like fiction that draws outside the lines and CREEP took all the precautions not to. It was fine, because it had a strong voice and didn't fall for clichés, but you know. It's hard to be fully satisfied when you see the potential for more in the characters as well as in the writing itself. I welcomed the idea of a sequel with open arms, knowing the trip wasn't over for Sheila, Morris, Torrance and all the others. FREAK didn't exactly turned things around 180 degrees, but has Jennifer Hillier started drawing outside the lines? Oh hell yes, she did and it makes things a lot more interesting. It's still a commercial thriller, but it's about as original as the genre will ever get.
The thriller genre lies heavily on tension. There can be nothing but razor sharp tension to it and it would work perfectly. The necessary variable to a great thriller is an amazing villain and FREAK has one. Abby Maddox is not only a great villain, but a great female character period. She's a manipulator, but not in the Machiavellian, classic sense of the term. She's not evident. When you meet her the first time, her story actually made sense. The conundrum Sheila, Jerry and the other protagonists are facing is to know what in Abby's story is the truth and what is manipulative bullshit. Believe me, it's not that easy to separate. There is also another bad guy named Jeremiah. I'm not spoiling anything about him, but he steals the show whenever he's on the page. The kid is deliciously creepy. The fact that he's well-spoken and not a complete social outcast, make him even more atypical and original.
The protagonists of CREEP are all back, even Jerry, who I thought was dead and buried. He's back with a terrible scar across his throat, a new set of turtlenecks and a voice hoarser than Charles Bronson. Jerry was, I thought, the weak point of FREAK. He's very damaged and yet he doesn't act damage. He seems more bitter than anything else and also incapable of carrying cop work. Fortunately, the narrative is not centered around him. Sheila Tao also is back and is very interested in Abby. Fascinated, even. Not unlike me, as a reader. She's the one bearing the most damage from CREEP and it shows. She became more reckless, self-destructive and turns away from chances to leave the traumatic event behind. This time, Sheila's not a victim, but weirdly, a part of the issue as she plays Abby's game.
Mark was a good-looking guy, with a hard body to match underneath the CO uniform, but that wasn't why Abby was into him. It was really very simple. Abby was into Mark because he was into her. The desire in his dark eyes, his eagerness to please her, his willingness to risk himself to do whatever it took to make her happy - she knew she could use him.
FREAK is also a step forward from its predecessor in terms of structure. CREEP relied only on tension, but FREAK has a full-fledged mystery for you to play with. Abby's in jail and yet, bodies keep falling all over Seattle. There is a chain of people responsible for helping her and the sport here is to trace them all. The cast is rather diminutive, so it's not all that hard if you're an experienced reader, but it's not a gimmie either. Over the last hundred pages, Hillier mixes the thriller and mystery tropes very well and it becomes hard not to read. Interesting point, Detective Mike Torrance, a support cast member for one novel and a half, takes a more central role in these hundred pages. Sign of another novel to come?
I can't finish this review without mentioning the delicious, original and abstract ending. Some people will bag on it, but I absolutely loved it. It reminded me of Jim Thompson's THE GETWAY a bit. It was quite a surprise and quite the way to set things up for a possible sequel. FREAK won't seduce too many people outside the thriller readers community, but if anything, it shows that Jennifer Hillier is getting a better grip on her craft and has huge potential. FREAK is multi-dimensional, has a great set of villains and beats its predecessor CREEP on every aspect. People looking for a thriller while traveling or for this summer's vacation will get what they're looking for here.