Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Never Look Back.
While much of the response to Donoghue’s debut thriller has been lukewarm, I thought the book an admirable first effort. The author descends deep into the mind of a troubled cop, a fearful victim, and the psyche of what could be South London’s first serial killer.
Troubled Detective Inspector Mike Lockyer is not quite prepared for the scene that greets him at the site of the Lewishham Tesco Metro. Female and only eighteen, the victim is “dead on arrival.” A closer analysis of the crime scene by the Murder Investigation Team signifies a gruesome connection to the rape of two girls who struggled during their sexual assault before they were murdered.
From here, Donoghue’s crime thriller ricochets out from an unremarkable street in East Dulwich to the flat of vulnerable Sarah Grainger, who is simultaneously being stalked perhaps by a killer and plagued by a caller for what seems like a hundred times. According to the police, there’s nothing they can do. Sarah is on her own but haunted by a presence she feels but does not believe. She is forced to shrug off the phantom knocks on her door and the phone calls: “hers were the eyes of a hunted animal.”
In a intense and provocative plot, the strange, cryptic stalker brings Sarah face-to-face with Mike’s colleague, Jane, and then Mike himself in a fateful moment of reckoning. Handsomely disheveled with dark hair and olive skin, Lockyer proves to be both Sarah’s anchor and her passionate nemesis, and Sarah is his solace as he’s plunged further into the investigation of the murder of the three girls. The most recent victim, Deborah Stevens, adds yet another layer of brutality to the detective’s tightly-knit and emotionally layered investigation.
Chapters unfold in a London cold and bleak, where the winter clouds are heavy with snow. Donoghue alternates between Lockyer visiting a local residential care home where he tries to connect with Bobby, his autistic brother who seems to be shut off in his own world, to Sarah, who is beginning to lose her grip on home and her work. As her life slips beyond her control, she becomes hostage to a stalker who is beginning to infect every part of her life, “dismantling it from inside out.”
Lockyer’s mind races, Debbie’s face so vivid that it makes his chest ache. He’s disturbed that Debbie bore a startling resemblance to his own nineteen-year-old daughter, Megan. Images of the crime scene crowd in on him: East Dulwich Road, its red lights reflected by patches of ice, the pool of blood, the narrow, dark alley littered with bottles, fag butts and syringes, and poor, dead Debbie found lying among the debris. Thoughts of Sarah “tattooed on his forehead,” Mike has a mild panic that Lewishham’s first serial killer may have taken a personal interest in him.
While at times the novel feels underwritten and a bit predictable, Donohue is able to ramp up the tension until the final bloody, suspenseful denouement. The threads of the case multiply and fly as the momentum increases. In search of a connection to the murdered girls, Lockyer puts a surveillance team on Sarah, her stalker perhaps a potential suspect. The killer’s confidence meanwhile grows, and soon enough he’s returning to the original crime scene. Throughout, Lockyer remains emotionally brittle, complicated and often frustrating, while Sarah herself battles to cope with a precarious reckoning with who she is and who she wants to be.
Although Donoghue has constructed a pretty standard nail-biter, the tale is not easily forgotten. Presenting a world that exists far below the surface, where grim reality is sliced off to reveal true depravity, Donoghue infuses her story with heart—not just the gritty, damaged Lockyer, but his friends and colleagues, too.