Well, I was in the mood for a fast-paced novel, so I thought that I’d take a look at one I’ve been meaning to re-read for a while. I am, of course, talking about Shaun Hutson’s 2004 horror thriller novel “Necessary Evil”.
Since I had some vague memories of reading this novel around the time when the paperback edition came out (and being amazed that Hutson was moving back towards writing horror again after several years of writing gritty crime thrillers), I was curious to see what I’d think of it a decade and a half later.
So, let’s take a look at “Necessary Evil”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in Iraq in 1990. Several men are being chased through the desert by an unseen foe and eventually find an abandoned town where they think they will be safe. Needless to say, they aren’t. And, after they are killed in various grisly ways, Saddam Hussein shows up with one of his scientists, Dr. Sharafi, to observe the results of this “test”.
Whilst all of this is going on, there are several segments set in London in 2004. A local criminal called Matt Franklin is sitting in a pub with his girlfriend Amy, an aspiring singer, when he realises that he’s got to go off and meet several of his mates. They are planning an armed robbery of an armoured van delivering wages to an army base.
When they put their plan into action some time later, things seem to go fairly well for them until they eventually get the van open and find that it is filled with corpses instead of money. Seconds later, an unseen sniper shoots two of them. Matt and the survivors flee and hole up in a garage. Someone is out to get them. Meanwhile, a detective called D. I. Crane arrives at the crime scene and quickly discovers that this is more than just an ordinary robbery case…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a gripping, gritty and fast-paced novel that only Shaun Hutson could have written 🙂 If you like your thrillers to be a bit less “modern Hollywood”, a bit more morally ambiguous and with a bit of a horror flavour to them, then this novel is worth reading. This is also one of those novels from when Hutson gradually started reintroducing elements of the horror genre to his fiction, but it is still slightly more of a thriller than a horror story – not to mention that it was also a fairly “topical” novel at the time it was released too (which is both a good and a bad thing).
Still, being a Hutson novel, I should start by talking about the horror elements. This novel contains a mixture of scientific horror, suspense, claustrophobia, terrorism-based horror, monster horror, cruel/sadistic horror, bleak nihilism and – of course- ultra-gruesome gory horror. Although this novel isn’t exactly frightening, the horror elements really help to add extra suspense and atmosphere to many scenes and Hutson’s famous gruesome descriptions also add a lot of extra impact, grittiness, realism and/or moral ambiguity to many of the novel’s violent moments too.
In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, they’re really good 🙂 Although this novel technically fits into the action-thriller genre, this is backed up by expert use of suspense – whether it is various tense and paranoid stand-offs, the scenes where Matt finds himself under threat from an unseen foe, some segments about a mysterious group of terrorists plotting an attack or the moments where Matt is forced into an uneasy alliance with the police, this novel uses suspense really well.
However, some of this suspense is undercut thanks to a few scenes where another group of characters explain some central elements of the story before the main characters discover them. Still, this is compensated for by a few mild political thriller elements featuring a fictional prime minister (who, unlike the actual one at the time, is implied to be more of a conservative), which have a bit of ominous conspiracy thriller atmosphere to them, in addition to a healthy dose of cynical satire.
Of course, there are also some spectacularly cinematic action set-pieces too – including a couple of gripping car chases, a few fight scenes, a military raid and a grippingly fast-paced ending segment that mixes fast-paced action with tense claustrophobia really well (even if the science in the part involving fire extinguishers – emphasis on “extinguishers” – is very shaky). If you’ve read some of Hutson’s thriller novels before, then you’ll probably know what to expect – not only does he have a talent for writing gritty, impactful action sequences but they also include his trademark level of gun geekery and anatomical knowledge too.
As for the atmosphere, this novel is kind of an interesting mixture of a gritty Cockney gangster story, a dark nihilistic horror story and the kind of military/police thrillers that were all the rage in the early-mid 2000s.
This also brings me on to the novel’s historical context. First published two to three years after 9/11 and about a year before the 7/7 attacks (which makes some moments eerily prescient), this novel is very much about the fear of terrorism at the time – and, if you first read it during the mid-2000s (like I did), then it came across as very topical back then. It also examines other issues of the time like the limits of government power (or the lack of limits to it) and the morality of torture too. However, all of this “topical” stuff (and a small amount of “politically incorrect” dialogue etc…) mean that it’ll probably seem a bit dated if you read it for the first time today.
Still, all of this stuff aside, this novel also contains some evocative moments of 1990s and early-mid 2000s nostalgia – such as a poignant scene where Amy sings a few lines from Evanescence’s “My Immortal” or the general atmosphere of some parts of the novel. In addition to this, the novel also takes influence from the “edgier” parts of the 1990s too, such as the very Tarantino-esque scene after the failed robbery or two moments where this novel makes brilliant use of Bill Hicks quotes/references 🙂
In terms of the characters, the main characters are reasonably well-written. Matt has a rather bleak and depressing character arc, where the events of the story turn him into an even more morally ambiguous anti-hero, whose death wish is only tempered by his burning desire for violent revenge. Likewise, although D.I Crane gets slightly less characterisation, the tension between his duty and the practical realities of the case give him some much-needed depth. Not to mention that it is also really cool to see the two of them team up with each other in the later parts of the novel after so much mutual suspicion and criticism.
As for the writing, this novel is modern-style Shaun Hutson 🙂 In other words, like in his crime thrillers from the mid-late 1990s/early 2000s and many of his more recent novels, this one is written in a fast-paced, gritty, “matter of fact” and/or informal way, with the novel still retaining some elements of his classic horror fiction via the use of a more descriptive style during gorier or more dramatic moments. Plus, this novel also contains a few classic Hutsonisms too, such as mention of a scapula bone (which is, of course, shattered), one type of pistol and descriptive words like “mucoid”, “putrescent” etc… 🙂
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 Although this novel is a slightly lengthy 468 pages, the writing style and pacing mean that it never feels bloated or over-long. Likewise, the novel contains a really good mixture of suspense, set pieces, emotional drama etc… and multiple plot threads that really help to keep the story compelling. It is also paced much more like a thriller than a horror novel, resulting in a more consistent pace throughout (rather than a slower build-up throughout the story, as you’d expect in a horror novel).
All in all, whilst this novel is a little dated, it is still a really gripping, fast-paced and gritty horror-flavoured thriller novel. Yes, it focuses slightly more on the thriller elements than the horror elements, but both still go together really well and result in a rather compelling and atmospheric novel. Yes, you’ll get the most out of it if you have already read it during the mid-2000s, but it is an interesting look back at this time – not to mention that the underlying story elements are still as dramatic, gripping and/or atmospheric as they were back then.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.