I confess to having started reading Block 46 with more than a little consternation. It quickly becomes apparent when reading this book that it’s both a serial killer novel (not my favourite strand of crime fiction) and that the killer in some way grew out of the holocaust. This second aspect gave me real pause for concern. Was Block 46 going to prove to be some cheap exploitation? A novel that used the real-life horror of the concentration camps as a stepping stone for schlock? There were two things which gave me the reassurance to persevere, however. The first is that the publisher is Orenda Books, possibly the most successful of the independent publishers to start up in the past few years, and who’s boss Karen Sullivan I couldn’t imagine publishing anything exploitative. The second, was that turning to the acknowledgements, I read that the author Johana Gustawsson, has a family history which is deeply entwined in the horrific events of the holocaust. So, persevere I did. I’m happy to report that my concerns were allayed. I won’t give away any spoilers, but should potential readers have similar concerns to my own, they can relax.
First and foremost, this is a serial killer thriller with bodies turning up in London, on Hampstead Heath, and in Sweden. Emily Roy, a Canadian psychological profiler who was trained by the FBI at Quantico, and Alexia Castells, a French true-crime author, are soon assisting the police investigation. The killings are grotesque and the author holds little back in her description. Interspersed within all this are chapters set further back in time, in the Buchenwald concentration camp during the Second World War. Here we follow Erich, a German political inmate. We know the stories are going to intersect we just don’t know how or when.
The concentration camp chapters are shocking in the extreme, as indeed they should be. The author doesn’t shy away from the horrors the inmates had to endure and the reader realises that even now, even after all we’ve read and heard about the topic, there’s more to learn. I found myself Googling aspects and discovering that they really happened, that this wasn’t just the product of the author’s imagination. In fact, so shocking are these chapters, that when reading the modern-day stuff, I sometimes found myself flicking pages to find out how much further until I encountered the historical narrative once again, so as to be able to steel myself. Not that the modern-day narrative goes easy on you. Reading this book, you quickly realise that the killer is uniquely evil, his twisted vision giving the narrative a breath-taking tension.
Obviously, I understand that Block 46 is fiction and in a work of fiction a certain flexibility is taken with realism. That said however, I did have some issues with the novel. These stemmed from the following: serial killer fiction isn’t really my thing; I studied Criminology to MA level at the LSE; I have several friends in the police. What this amount to is that I found the character of Emily Roy not very convincing. Psychological profiling is not the magic bullet fiction writers like to portray it to be; police dependence on it as a tool went out of fashion a long time ago (if they ever did rely on it to that extent, one suspects this was more the wishful thinking of authors and screenwriters). My understanding is that even in America where profiling was more central to investigations it is now purely advisory in capacity. Certainly, in the UK I know this to be the case. In fact, there have been several occasions where profiling has gone disastrously wrong, not least when Colin Stagg was nearly railroaded into prison for the murder of Rachel Nickell. Full marks to the author for using the current in-fashion name for profilers (Behavioural Investigative Advisers), but Roy would never be given such free reign by the Met as the author imagines here. I’m sorry to say that while Roy was an interesting character in herself, I found the portrayal of her profession more than a little outdated.
That all said, Block 46 is a very good book. Each of the characters (yes, even Emily Roy) are compelling in themselves. You want to spend time with them, you want to find out what happens, you want them to catch the killer and bring them to justice. It’s a testament to how good this book is that despite all the issues I had, I finished it quickly, within a matter of days. It’s a testament to how good this book is that I’ll read the sequel, even if its pages are populated by more serial killers.
4 out of 5 stars