by Ruby Barnes
In popular fiction the serial killer is a trope for the embodiment of evil rather than an extreme example of the everyday experience of madness that may affect our friends or ourselves. For that reason Hannibal Lecter has more in common with Dracula Prince of Darkness than, say, the Yorkshire Ripper in his ignorant ordinariness. For the same reason, the madness of the fictional serial killer is a permanent part of the character’s identity – masked perhaps, but always there – while in contrast the madness of actual life is like a career of part time jobs: some good, some horrible, but all episodic. Ruby Barnes’s insight into this reality is what makes The Baptist so truthful, convincing and distinctive.
The story is told mainly from the point of view of the killer himself, John Baptist. He is committed to an institution in his teens for the murder of his brother and here he meets Mary, whose madness is of a more chaotic type. On his release he creates a normal life in Ireland, including a marriage with children and a job running a small garage business. His tendency to madness is always there but it is managed by drugs, as is the case for many people. However – and this is another intelligent insight of the author – John secretly comes off his drugs: he actively chooses his psychosis over his sanity because the experience of madness is invigorating and empowering (at least on a temporary basis until its disruptive effects become overwhelming). In this condition John encounters Mary again and they embark on a spree to realise his mission.
The most effective passages of the book deal with John’s encounter with a mysterious friend, Feargal, and the resumption of his relations with Mary. Because we see events through John’s eyes the surface of the narrative becomes slippery with uncertainty as to the reality of what we are seeing, and the identities of characters seem to elide one into another. This part is wonderfully done because of the delicate writing, which is restrained, slyly humorous, and at times lyrical. The best parts are reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro. The writing throughout is of a very high standard.
As with most books there are flaws, though none of them fatal. This isn’t a detective story, but Barnes introduces a detective, McAuliffe, who is linked to John’s history by an inadequately explained backstory and whose role is essentially redundant. Also there are several shifts in the narrative point of view that work only so-so because the dominance of John’s viewpoint has the effect that the shifts come as something of a surprise. It is also fair to repeat that this is not a standard serial killer thriller, and this means that the reader does not have the safety and comfort of the usual conventions. Prepare to be creeped out.