Judith Cutler is the author of many short stories and some thirty novels. Her most recent is Ring of Guilt (Severn House) the latest in the series featuring antique dealers Griff Tripp and Lina Townend. Check out the other novels on www.judithcutler.com
By coincidence, I read this outstanding and elegantly written novel the day that the release of kidnap victims in Cleveland, Ohio, reminded us just how unpleasant and how evil human beings can be to each other in a relatively domestic setting: it doesn’t take a war to make people behave their worst.
Philosophers write about the need to treat humans as ends in themselves, not means to an end: clearly in Cleveland and in the pages of What Comes Next this tenet is completely ignored, which makes the novel all the more important as an examination of human behaviour.
On one level it is a psychological thriller, a game of cat and mouse as the good try to find the victim before the very worst happens. The very worst: what kidnap victim Jennifer has to endure, including rape, is bad enough. But what you do with a commodity when it outlives its usefulness – for this is how the kidnappers view the teenage girl – becomes a marketing issue. The kidnappers are doing more than violating her mentally and physically: they are streaming all that happens in the room where she is incarcerated on an obscure but highly lucrative website.
The only help at hand comes from a man literally losing his mind to a vicious degenerative disease, symptoms of which include not just forgetting reality but having it replaced with hallucinations. Retired psychology professor Adrian Thomas, who has seen all those dearest to him die, refuses at first to take the drugs that may stave off total dementia for a few months. But when he realises he’s just seen a crime being committed, he resolves to retain his sanity long enough to save the girl hauled into a van. At first the police dismiss him as a doddering old fool, but at last he manages to persuade Detective Terri Collins that he is on to something – what she cannot and must not know that he is supported in his quest by hallucinatory visions of his long-dead loved ones. Just as these non-real entities sustain him in the chaos and despair into which his existence is descending, so Jennifer is comforted and driven to survive by an inanimate object, her teddy bear, Mr Brown Fur.
The multi-faceted narrative becomes far more than “just” a thriller: it asks important questions: how can ordinary decent people participate via the Web in unspeakable acts? How can a man who had committed evil end up doing good? In all it becomes a highly palatable and accessible exploration of intelligence, perception and experience, asking questions about the nature of reality itself.
This is a deeply satisfying book at many levels, not least in its ending. Please read it: it will grip you from the first page and not let you go, even when you have read the last, very moving, page.