'The Angel Maker' is a thrilling question mark all the way to the end
Alex North's The Angel Maker is one of those tense, gripping narratives that walk a fine line between horror, mystery, a detective story, and something dark and enigmatic that lives in the shadows between those genres.
Deeply complex and carefully crafted, this novel is a thrilling question mark all the way to the end, and it puts North's storytelling skills on full display.
Katie Shaw grew up in a nice house surrounded by a loving family, but that changed when a deranged stranger attacked her brother Chris. As a result of the attack, Chris became a problematic young man and eventually became estranged from his family, while Katie became haunted by guilt and developed a constant sense of worry and insecurity. Now, 17 years later, Katie has a young daughter, is struggling to keep her relationship afloat, and Chris is missing — meaning he needs her again.
Meanwhile, Detective Laurence Page and his partner, Detective Caroline Pettifer, are investigating the gruesome murder of Alan Hobbes, a distinguished professor who was killed in his home hours after firing his entire staff and soon after giving instructions to his lawyers and getting most of his affairs in order. The case is strange, but a few pieces of evidence point to Chris Shaw being somehow involved in the crime. As Page and Pettifer uncover new leads and Katie tries to find her brother, the stories of Hobbes, Chris, Katie, and Jack Lock, a notorious serial killer who was also a religious zealot claiming he could see the future, all become deeply — and complicatedly — intertwined.
The Angel Maker is relentless and creepy. The narrative moves quickly, which means the revelations keep coming and the tension mounts with almost every single chapter. Also, there are a lot of elements at play and the story jumps between past and present, but North made sure everything is clear and easy to navigate, which means readers are basically forced — in a good way — to keep reading. The mounting anxiety and ever-growing pile of questions make it hard to step away.
Philosophy, religious zealotry, and murder make for a very dark trio that resides at the core of this novel. The story of Jack Lock, which readers get when Katie does research in her quest for her brother, is fascinating and gory, and it will appeal greatly to fans of true crime who also read crime fiction. "You have committed blasphemy, and it will be corrected," reads a threatening note Hobbes received more than three decades before his murder, and those words encompass the violence that underlines the entire novel.
In his classic novel The Name of the Rose, author Umberto Eco has a line that, in part, states that "not infrequently books speak of books," and this is true in The Angel Maker. While most of the narrative has to do with things from the real world like murder, a man on the run, and Katie's worry about her daughter's safety after seeing a strange figure trying to break into their home, Jack Lock's story, the brutal process of making angels (I won't spoil that here), and a cryptic book Lock wrote where he proved he knew the future all come together to give the story a supernatural flair that pairs well with the discussion on determinism that can be found in the book. Also, Hobbes was obviously killed, but the way he prepared for it, and the meds in his body at the time of death, make it clear that he knew it would happen. This complicates things even further and tie his murder to Lock's beliefs as well as the determinism he spoke of in his classes.
The Angel Maker is a bizarre hybrid that comes together beautifully and somehow finds a balance that works for it despite the plethora of elements that make it up. This is a story that delves deep into the unbreakable bond between two siblings that love each other but are convinced the other wants nothing to do with them, but it's also a horror story wrapped in crime that brings to life the spirit of a disturbing serial killer who was convinced everything was preordained by God and thus every human was action was both inevitable and without fault. In less capable hands, a narrative that juggles so many elements and such a rich cast of characters could've easily turned into a disorganized mess. But in North's skilled hands, it becomes a very cohesive, enthralling ride into some of the darkest corners of extreme religiousness and human nature. North has already made a name for himself as an international bestselling author thanks to the mix of darkness and violence he brings to the page — and The Angel Maker, his best so far, is a superb addition to his already impressive oeuvre.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.