PAINKILLER by NJ Fountain

“You wrote my note! My suicide note! You want to kill me!”

fountain-painkiller

Although the term ‘gaslighting’ has existed for decades, it is very popular at present to describe stories in which men manipulate the minds of women – and this clever suspense novel definitely fits the bill. Monica had an accident five years ago and is now in a constant state of neuropathic pain. She used to be a powerful actor’s agent but now, due to side effects from her medication, can barely remember anything of her old life. Her husband Dominic has seemingly been very supportive, putting up with all her vicious emotional outbursts; but when she finds forgotten  old suicide note, in clear handwriting she physically couldn’t have written, Monica starts to doubt everything, and everyone, around her.

And don’t forget to check out the reviews posted as part of Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“My Angry Friend has locked me inside my house, inside my bedroom, inside my bed, inside my body, inside my head, and hidden the key for the foreseeable future.”

For the first 100 or so pages, the only voice we hear is that of Monica, who narrates in the first person as she fights with her own body, which on particularly bad days she refers to as her ‘Angry Friend.’ After that, we occasionally also hear from her mild-mannered husband Dominic, her lovestruck physio Niall and Detective Inspector Geoff Marks, who investigated her original accident, though their stories are always told in the third person. As the narrative progresses we learn that Monica used to be a very successful actor’s agent who got where she was by being very hard and intolerant of weakness in others. Her husband is not especially successful financially and they have real money worries now. Monica learns that there is a new treatment that may finally alleviate her chronic pain, but her husband is against it – why? Is it because if she comes off her medication her memory will return? And what has he buried out in the garden? And what about the large insurance policy on her life?

“By the time you read this I will be dead. Do not grieve for me, for I am now without pain. Yours truly for ever, Monica.”

Dominic it turns out has many dark secrets – but is he the one who tried to kill his wife five years before? Or was it her client Larry or her friend Angelina? And what about Niall, an ex-actor who now makes his living as a physio and who is much too attached to Monica? He starts off as a needy friend and eventually starts to seem very creepy instead as we learn more about him.

The term ‘gaslighting’ comes of course from Patrick Hamilton’s popular 1938 play Gas Light (originally performed as ‘Angel Street’ in the USA), about a woman who fears she is going insane but who is in fact being manipulated by her husband. The play was turned into a couple of very good movies and since then of course there have been plenty of successful novels, plays as well as films and TV episodes about domestic malice in which nothing is what it seems. Think of Hitchcock’s Suspicion (taken from Frances Iles’ 1932 Before the Fact)  and his later Vertigo or the 1955 film Les Diaboliques, both taken from stories by Boileau-Narcejac  and which inspired a batch of movies written by Jimmy Sangster for Hammer (all of which I reviewed here). More recently it got used for Girl on the Train and so on, as well as by Steven Soderbergh for his recent movie, Side Effects.

This brilliant new thriller is the work of an author who may be more familiar to comedy and radio fans as ‘Nev Fountain’. By writing mainly in the first person he really works to his strength from his earlier work for audio and indeed this is one case where, very unusually for me, I would strongly recommend getting the 12-hour audiobook version which is read by Nicola Bryant (who is the author’s real-life partner and inspired Monica and the story itself) and John Banks handling the men’s voices. I’m not usually one for audio books, but this is an exception and works extremely well.

Nev Fountain and Nicola Bryant in 2010 (image: Sean Marsh / http://marshtowers.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/dimensions-2010-part-one.html)

Nev Fountain and Nicola Bryant in 2010 (image: Sean Marsh / http://marshtowers.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/dimensions-2010-part-one.html)

Fountain has worked on several Doctor Who audio productions for Big Finish over the years and has, in my view, written some of their very best. Many reviewers are calling this novel Fountain’s debut as a novelist, but only under this variant new byline – as ‘Nev Fountain’ he previously published three Mervyn Stone mystery novels – for detailed and enthusiastic reviews of these, see what the Puzzle Doctor has to say over at his blog In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel by clicking here. You can read Fountain’s old blog here: http://nevfountain.wordpress.com, where you can also read his short Mervyn Stone mystery, The Pen is Mightier than the Nerd, which was originally published on Twitter in handy 140-character bytes.

This is is in every sense a superior suspense novel, though keep in mind, very much for adults given the situations and especially the strong language. So whether in the print edition (now available in paperback), as an ebook or in its audio equivalent, you really should get this. The main character is incredibly compelling and always credible – and the great twist at the end comes after a succession of clever reversals. A masterful thriller with great characters with that rarest of twin commodities: intelligence and heart. Not to be missed.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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This entry was posted in Alfred Hitchcock, Amnesia, Boileau-Narcejac, England, Film Noir, Hammer Studios, Jimmy Sangster, London, Nev Fountain, Patrick Hamilton, Robert Bloch, Ruth Rendell. Bookmark the permalink.

42 Responses to PAINKILLER by NJ Fountain

  1. tracybham says:

    Wow, you rarely give anything 5 Fedora tips, I will absolutely have to be on the lookout for this. Might be too, too suspenseful for me but I want to try it.

    • Thanks Tracy – I’m going to go our on a limb and say that you’ll live this book a lot. It is never gory or bloody and is focussed entirely on character. A really superb thriller.

  2. This sounds really suspenseful and well-structured, Sergio! I’m very glad you liked it so well. It has such an intriguing storyline, too. I think I just may have to look out for this one.

  3. Colin says:

    Agree with the others here, this does sound very solid and well done. The premise is, as you say, a familiar one but there’s always room for variations on such themes.

  4. le0pard13 says:

    Oh, I’m intrigued. At the moment, it’s only available used on this side of the pond in paperback. And the Isis Audio (UK) is the only version in that format. Will go with the former, at least for now. Thanks, Sergio.

  5. realthog says:

    Oh, this one does sound great — many thanks for the tipoff. I’ll be looking out for it when it gets over here, if it hasn’t already (off to check).

    The Girl on the Painkiller? No, that way lies madness . . .

  6. I heartily agree with this one. Just because it sounds a familiarish premise doesn’t mean that it’s the same as all the other reliable narrator books out there. This is an outstanding piece of work and deserves to be read by all fans of the genre. Glad you enjoyed it.

    • I’d been waiting for the right moment to really enjoy this but when I saw it was out in Sydney I just had to get it. Left it for my sister-in-law, who by mistake let my nieces read it. Definitely not suitable for 12-year-olds!

      • Todd Mason says:

        Hm. I do occasionally think we’re of rather differing minds about what adolescents are likely to have already encountered, Sergio…and, certainly, YA fiction and drama these years doesn’t shrink from too much. But I was digging adult fiction at a very young age, as well as (like most of my peers) fascinated by PLAYBOY and its multimedia peers…

        • Well, I think 12 is definitely too young to be reading books with heavy swearing and description sexual violence! But to put this in a narrow context, my niece just read her first Agatha Christie this year – she tried last year and got nightmares. They’re still embarrassed when people kiss on screen … What was I doing at that age to improve my mind, in the pre-internet era? This would have been circa 1980 so I’m not sure I’d even tried Chandler yet. When I read Dr No for the first time about a year later I thought it was pretty racy!

  7. JJ says:

    I remain steadfastly suspicious of anything currently put out under a “you’ll be so completely shocked by the original setup and thrilling ending that no-one could possibly see coming” banner, mainly because they’re terrible, non-sensical, emotionally psychotic, and/or one decent idea stretched over 400 pages. But you’ve got me curious now, so I’m off to get this as soon as I post this comment…no idea when I’ll read it, but you have at least convinced me to give it a go.

    • Well, I’m glad to hear that you are not making any a priori judgements on this before reading it JJ … 🙂 This takes a basic scenario that is well-established but does it very well I think – it’s not really about the big twist at the end. There is a very satisfying and unexpected conclusion, but it isn’t what the book is about. It’s all about Monica, who is a fascinating character, though not someone I could ever imagine being friends with for very long …

  8. FIVE OUT OF FIVE! Wow, I’ll have to track down a copy of PAINKILLER by NJ Fountain. Sounds like a compelling read. Again, an excellent review!

  9. Todd Mason says:

    At least in my experience, “gaslighting” doesn’t have quite the gendered spin these years, so much as in use to describe anyone feeling like they’re being manipulated to feel they’re crazy or somehow not quite grasping reality…I’ve certainly heard men use the term about other men or women trying to do so, usually humorously. Certainly our current president over here seems to be attempting to do so to the nation and world, but might well be most effectively doing so to himself.

    • The piece I linked to from the Guardian is all about men vs women in this regard, but I take your points of course – it is just about power first and foremost. As for those 77 paranoid minutes we all just had to endure, I think that level of paranoia and delusional behaviour it exhibited must meet several definitions of clinical mental disorder. Truly terrifying.

  10. Not my kind of thing at all (if you’re using GIRL ON THE TRAIN as an example and I’m using it as an example of the kind of book no power on earth would get me to read) BUT I love your enthusiasm and so I will be reading it and heaven help you if the author doesn’t deliver. HA!

    • I would not want to get on the wrong end of your wrath Yvette 🙂 I really hope you like it. The main character is tough but credible, the supporting cast very plausible and interesting, the story has lots of twists and turns and I promise – no blood and guts! Enjoy!

  11. Great review of a book by a really talented writer.

  12. John says:

    Please enlighten this ignorant Yank: what is a physio? Is that a UK term for physical therapist?

    This sounds very much like all those Sangster movies. I don’t know about it though. Rave review notwithstanding all these contemporary spins on the “manipulation of the mind” all leave me wanting. I see through them almost instantly.

    Have you read BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP or seen the movie with Nicole Kidman? I figured out the “gaslighting” gimmick in that one from the get go. Admittedly a clever variation, but very much a Jimmy Sangster style plot. But I’m still very unsatisfied by all these modern spins on this manipulation of the mind” theme.

    Somewhat related to this is the movie ELLE, one of the most numbingly violent and perverse movies I’ve seen in a long time. Talk about sexual violence and power plays intended only for truly adult and mature audiences. Lord! I saw it on Feb 14 forgetting that it was Valentine’s Day. Believe it or not many people were there as a V-Day date! I heard a few couples talking to one another prior to the movie. I thought, “Oh boy, you have no idea what awaits you, people.”

  13. Sergio – This is not the kind of book I usually reach for, but based on your fine review, I will give it a try. Thanks.

  14. Matt Paust says:

    First 5-tipper I’ve seen here, Sergio. With that and your enticing review, of course I will hunt down the book!

  15. Sergio, I’m not sure I want to read this, in spite of your convincing review and all-star rating. Probably a bit too dark and gloomy, especially when I’m trying to put my reading back on track. Thanks for writing about “gaslighting” — that was new as well.

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