“The Uninvited” by Liz Jensen (Bloomsbury, 325 pgs., $25)
The psychologically flawed detective is everywhere, from television’s “Monk” (with OCD) to Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning novel “Motherless Brooklyn” (with Tourette’s). In “The Uninvited,” British writer Liz Jensen brings us Hesketh Lock, an elite, handsome corporate investigator with Asperger’s syndrome who must confront a world sliding into chaos.
Lock is good at reading patterns in part because he looks past human emotions. In fact, he’s oblivious to them — it’s how his disorder manifests. As his ex-girlfriend bitterly puts it, he’s “a robot made of meat.”
She lives in London with her 7-year-old son; Lock moved away to a remote Scottish island after their relationship ended. He doesn’t quite have the wiring to come out and say it, but he is hurt by the breakup and feels a paternal tug toward the boy.
The relationship among all of them becomes important about halfway through the book, after a strange condition, in which children behave like savages, has spread across the globe. Maybe they’re infected. Maybe they’re haunted. Maybe they’re having psychotic episodes. What is for sure is that they’re murderers.
Little children, pre-adolescents, are murdering their parents. This is where the book begins — the first shadows of the end times arriving in the form of a 5-year-old with a nail gun.
Jensen is a bestselling author in England. In her seven previous novels, she has slipped between and across genres. She’s written gothic, frightening futurism and psychological thrillers. In this book, she combines dystopia and mystery in a light read that sometimes feels as quickly paced as a television show.
The puzzle of what’s going on with the children and how it begins to erode the structures of our civilization has all the aspects of a page-turning thriller. However, it takes a while to get going.
First, we follow Lock’s apparently unconnected investigation of whistle-blowing and sabotage at various multinationals. His company works in corporate malfeasance and damage control. He sorts through the avalanche of data and rumor and susses out the sources, reporting back to his boss. He is hopeless at comforting a weeping executive, but he is good at his job.
Lock travels to far-flung parts of the globe, picking up languages with remarkable speed and slowly making connections among isolated events. Bad behavior, on the part of adults and children, disrupts the normal flow of daily life. There are accidents and disrupted schedules and days with no school.
But we run into the problem of Lock as a narrator: To the reader of a dystopian novel, all of the above are in the realm of possibility. We gobble down zombies in “The Walking Dead.”
So the reader is at an advantage: We can see around Lock’s blind spots. That’s the case when it comes to figuring out the mystery, and it’s the case when it comes to the emotional lives of people around him. He doesn’t tell us who his ex-girlfriend had an affair with, but it’s not hard to guess.
There is something exciting about being a step ahead of the protagonist in a story — in a horror movie, we often know where the killer is hiding — but get too far ahead, and the tension goes slack.