Jack Ketchum's "Stranglehold" might scare the hell out of you if you're a divorced mom with elementary school-aged kids, so be forewarned.
Lydia Danse was a victim of sexual sadism at the hands of her husband, Arthur. While the violent sodomy ends, his emotional abuse continues. One night, after a dinner party, Arthur got physical, beating Lydia bloody, then calmly strolling out of their house. Lydia took off for her friend Cindy's house, knowing that from then on, it was just her and the couple's son, Robert.
In the divorce, Lydia didn't object to Arthur having reasonable visitation with Robert; despite his violence toward her, she reasoned, he always seemed to be a good and loving father.
But there was something a bit off about Robert. He'd been a happy little kid, and did well in school. All at once, though, he started stammering. He became clumsy, falling down frequently, and he began wetting the bed. Then losing bowel control in the night. It got so bad, that Robert had to wear a diaper to bed--seven years old, and wearing a diaper.
Once, after an afternoon visit with his father, Robert came home in tears. He'd soiled himself. Lydia followed him into the bathroom to help clean him up, and...she discovered just what had caused Robert's change in behavior, something beyond the worst thing she'd have expected from her ex-husband, something that had been going on for years.
Finally Lydia realizes what has been causing Robert's odd behaviors. She does what any good mother would do. She takes her son to a doctor, to his therapist, and her lawyer-arranged Guardian Ad Litem, essentially an attorney who represents only the child's interests. She gets a restraining order against Arthur, and takes him to court to have all of his parental rights severed.
The hearings and trials are tense, and what Lydia thinks should be a simple case to win ends up being a confounding legal nightmare-circus.
And all this time, a serial killer is committing horrible torture murders all across New England.
"Stranglehold" has Jack Ketchum's wonderfully frantic pacing throughout, and he damned sure knows how to tell a story. By the time I first checked my progress in the Kindle version, I was stunned to see I'd already zoomed through 70% of it. This is not a book to start at 10pm if you have to be at work the next day. (Thank God I'm off)
Writing a first-rate thriller is laudable, but no matter how good your story, if your ending sucks, your awesome 95% is for naught. Particularly egregious in many thrillers is the deus ex machina denouement, where, after somebody does something drastic--say Timmy burns down half the village to get rid of the bad guys--there's an epilogue, and the mean townsfolk see the error of their ways; the misunderstood protagonists' problems are solved, people rejoice, and everyone goes home happy and consequence free, with healed wounds, and, hell, maybe winning Lottery tickets and cute puppies.
I respect the hell out of Jack Ketchum for NOT doing this. Seriously, if a main character has been brutalized for years, setting off events that build to an explosive climax, it defies reason that five months later, in an epilogue, the victim is happy, well-adjusted, and ranked third in his or her class at Harvard Law. Actions have consequences, no matter how nobly inspired they may be.
In "Stranglehold," Jack Ketchum gets it right: the perfect ending to a powerhouse novel. Other thriller writers should take notes.