The Game Changer
Louise Phillips (Hachette 2015, Trade Paperback) 422 pages, cover price n/a
Louise Phillips’ fourth novel, The Game Changer is a psychological thriller that really should demand that a lot of other so-called psychological thrillers give up their false identity. You know the ones I mean. Hollywood releases a film version of one of them daily and twice on holiday Fridays. They almost always feature some young man of confused sexual identity who becomes convinced that the only means of finding his way in the world is by hacking clear the surrounding human underbrush with the sharpest implement available. Samurai swords in particular appeal to the emerging Asian market. Slap a swastika, a coiled serpent, or a moody old house on a blackly black cover and count the royalties as they fly through the air.
But really now, such claptrap is about as psychological as those silly little Facebook click-bait quizzes you get suckered into answering daily. (Hands up if you know the answer to, What Kind of Kitchen Appliance Are You? Thought so. Now put two slices of bread in your mouth and be a good little toaster oven.) No, a real psychological thriller like The Game Changer is actually about something. This is the sort of crime novel that involves learning as a subversive activity; an exploration into the darker currents of the mind while playing the great old game of Whodunnit?
The Game Changer goes into the world of cults and mass manipulation of vulnerable people. Full credit to Phillips for clearly and concisely presenting the facts and conclusions around her source material: The Charles Manson murders, as well as the Jonestown mass murder/suicide. If a reader has any resistance to Phillips’ plot (“How could anyone allow themselves to be so manipulated?”) she not only reminds the doubter of history, she also spells out the technique with fine, creepy detail.
Phillips does not hide her killer from the reader. That was something that I enjoyed about her previous novel Last Kiss – everything is laid out for the reader via the means of a second narrative voice; in this case the Game Changer of the title. As such, we actually have a bit of an advantage over Phillips’ investigator, criminal psychologist Kate Pearson, yet as savvy an old hand as I am at this genre I have to admit that I did not start solving the crime until precisely the point where I am sure Phillips wanted me to. Well done. I bow to her prowess.
Beyond all that, there is yet a third layer to The Game Changer that truly is spine-tingling. As the Game Changer character notes down the precise twenty-stage process towards a chosen subject’s ceding of decision-making abilities, one starts to think about all the ways we all are victims of game changing. If we are vulnerable (and whom amongst us isn’t?) we can so easily believe that our empowerment comes from destroying a threatening Them who seek to suppress us. We will instead assert our individuality by following a different herd! We are not Them, We are Us! Or as the late Frank Zappa once put it to a crowd of adoring fans in London at the peak of the hippie, counter-culture era: “Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t kid yourself.”
There is one other aspect of Phillips’ plot that some readers might to that I wish to address. Suppressed memory is a controversial subject in some quarters and it features greatly in the manipulation that Kate Pearson suffers. You might think, “Well how could anyone not remember everything about that?” Well, just by coincidence, in the day between completing The Game Changer and writing this review, I happened to conduct a phone interview with a remarkable woman named Mary Dispenza who wrote an equally remarkable memoir titled Split. Dispenza knows (and a criminal investigation confirmed) that she was abused by a pedophiliac priest when she was seven. However, more than six decades later she still is not sure of that happened once, twice, or however many times. So do not reject the concept of suppressed memory if you have not experienced it. Mind you … how would you know?
The Game Changer is absolute top drawer crime writing by Ireland’s finest crime writer. You will spend a very pleasant series of hours untying the knots of a perfectly tangled plot, and then the real fun starts when you follow the line that leads from the crime to – you.
Be seeing you.