COME WITH ME by Ronald Malfi
Titan Books p/b £8.99
Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
This book is a hymn to the victims of arbitrary violence. Malfi holds nothing back, forcing the reader to learn and understand. He deploys the smoke and mirrors of human dissimulation to imply supernatural forces, but in reality, all the horror is man-made. A clear message is being delivered: if you want the terrors found in human life to stop, then do something about it.
Last year in `Bystander 27’ Rik Hoskin fully explored the grief of a husband who saw his pregnant wife slaughtered before his eyes in a street incident. This tale starts in the same way. Has this become a characteristic of modern Americana? The emotions of a newly widowed young man facing the futile loneliness of grief caused by irrational violence is well articulated. It is only when you turn to the back pages you learn that Malfi lost a good friend in one of those utterly bizarre public mass shootings common to the USA. The reader’s lesson starts here.
Among his dead wife’s effects, Aaron Decker discovers a motel receipt that suggests she had a parallel life other than being the loving, jovial neighbourhood journalist for the county rag. At this point, the reader realises this is a tale of a grieving man going down a rat-hole searching for something he cannot at first comprehend. After some initial stumbling, his enquiry takes him back and forth across a narrow piece of country searching for a serial killer his wife had been privately pursuing. In so doing, he finally discovers his wife and the nature of her love for him.
Malfi has a very comfortable writing style which draws the reader into the plot in a spirit of gentle enquiry, but he does not hold back on the detail. Human existence can be wretched, its environment shabby, and its morality venal. The world can be an ugly place, but there are always the redeeming diamonds.
In his quest, Decker comes across institutionalised indifference in both local police forces and the conditions in which ordinary people are expected to live, but he does find support from a retired detective and a woman who had escaped the attentions of the serial-killer by mere accident. Another girl got murdered in her place. It is here the title of the book `Come With Me’ is articulated. These are the words the serial killer uses to entice his victims, who are all pretty, Pollyanna-style young girls, into his car. You can never fully escape the lure of the orderly white-picket-fence in American literature.
Decker finally traces the murderer back to his wife’s home town. This is where the ghostly atmosphere begins to magnify. He discovers that as a child, his wife had been the victim of a drunken stepfather, but later in life, she had fought back, terrifying the man into sobering up. This is another message expressed subliminally: the abused can so easily become abusers. And why shouldn’t they? Here he learns that ghosts are truly time travellers not bound by the here and now. It is here that following a violent struggle, he finally nails the serial killer. He is encouraged by the retired detective to claim he acted in self-defence.
The conclusion of the tale is a tad sentimental and should have been avoided, but from start to finish, Malfi keeps the reader nailed to the book. It is excellent value. You must not, however, forget the real, unspoken message of the entire work: things need to change.