Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Never Look Back.
Although three gruesome murders indicate the acceleration of a killer’s obsession, author Donoghue cannot seem to achieve a balance between the brutality of the murders and the plodding of Lewisham’s Murder Investigation Team. A rumpled, distracted Detective Inspector Mike Lockyer heads the investigation—the most recent victim eerily resembling his daughter, Megan—his detectives scrambling for links between the three victims. While the focus is on the serial killer, another plot line is introduced: the stalking of Sarah Grainger, who has finally gotten the courage to report her situation to the authorities.
The man who may well be southeast London’s first serial killer remains an enigma, none of his victims apparently connected in any aspect of their lives. While the MIT gets bogged down in the tedium of necessary procedures that usually bring closure to such cases, the details that build a case under scrutiny in court, the murderer stalks the streets selecting his next target—not to be confused with the stalker intent on Sarah Grainger. A freelance photographer whose world has become immeasurably smaller since her siege, Sarah is barely able to emerge from her apartment without debilitating fear. Lockyer cannot help but have sympathy for the young woman he meets at the station, uncomfortably aware that a personal relationship could taint the case against her stalker. Lockyer already has his hands full with the murders, deeply unsettled by the last victim’s resemblance to his daughter as well as a need to check frequently on the welfare of his autistic brother, Bobby.
Separated from his wife for over six years, Lockyer hasn’t made moving on a priority, yet the frail, frightened Sarah, unraveling under the stress of knowing she is constantly watched, appears to need protection. Given the breadth of his personal problems, it’s hard to view the lead detective as the aggressive leader of the murder squad, overwhelmed by the demands of the investigation, emotionally distracted by the last girl’s similarity to Megan and concerned about the well-being of Sarah Grainger, whose situation seems to be escalating. Donoghue juxtaposes chapters on the killer, the stalker and the ongoing investigation, not always a smooth progression; character development suffers for the extremes of the narrative. This lack of depth renders the characters either uninteresting or boring. For example, there is no texture to Grainger’s suffering, no sense of who she was before the stalker, of the life that has been snatched away by a stranger, no reason to see her as anything but a victim waiting to be put out of her misery. It is implausible that a seasoned detective like Lockyer would find such a woman appealing, let alone sexually attractive.
It is this lack of real commitment to her novel that ultimately defeats Never Look Back. Lockyer is never an engaging protagonist, pulled from one crisis to another, frequently thinking about a tentative woman who exhibits no desire to assist in her own defense and worrying about a daughter he seldom sees but even then struggles to engage in conversation. Donoghue paints her novel in shades of black and white, though life—and certainly murder—is Technicolor, her characters awed by a pristine blanket of snow, stunned by runnels of exsanguinated blood but unable to embrace nuanced areas of human behavior. What might have been a haunting tale of a madman preying on his victims and an obsessed stalker creeping nearer the object of his affections is, instead, hopelessly one-dimensional.