The Scottish Review of Books Review: The Devil's Staircase
Perhaps crime fiction as a genre performs a similar function to myth, but more specialised. It feeds the appetite to be told over and over again, through stories, just how black the human heart can be, how wounded it is.
Helen Fitzgerald’s serial killer in The Devil’s Staircase is a pathetic excuse for a human being. He makes a convincingly inadequate sexual predator, perhaps drawing some veracity from the author’s experience working with sex offenders in Barlinne. But you have to hope that during her years as a prison social worker she turned in more thorough background reports on her clients – as a crime writer, she has an ultra-casual way of lashing together a few flashback details that reveal dysfunctional homelife packages. These she bestows upon various hapless spawn of alcoholic or abusive parents in order to introduce suspense as to the identity of the one who has gone really bad.
Formulaic it may be, but Fitzgerald makes an honest fist of distilling light entertainment out of dark subject matter, stirring jokes and fun into the herringrich bouillabaisse along with bondage and murder. God’s not in His Heaven, All’s wrong with the world. And all, somehow, perversely relaxing.
The theme that nemesis has a habit of being unavoidable is given a counter-intuitive twist when 18-year-old Bronny is empowered to act with a decisive fury no one could imagine she had in her, becoming an unlikely agent of death instead of being constantly stalked by the fear of it. She is first encountered in full flight (Melbourne to Heathrow) from the reality that she has a fifty-fifty chance of developing Huntingdon’s Disease, the hereditary disorder that killed her mother after wreaking the sort of depredations on mind and body that would be considered gross sadism if carried out by a human perpetrator.
Her sister has been tested and declared clear, which makes Bronny even more certain that the name on the genetic bullet is hers. When she migrates next door from a hostel to a squat in a grand town-house, the innocent abroad gets a job in a sauna and begins to find her feet, although her head is constantly swimming with the quantity of pick ‘n’ mix drugs she is consuming with an equally motley assortment of new friends. They are lost young souls busking it together.
There’s Hamish, the wimpish, considerate Canadian chum who works in the Slug and Lettuce. Grumpy Pete, with muscles and tattoos, a dour expression and something about him that immediately disturbs Bronny. And Fliss, who has “a flippant way of doing everything, as if washing. dressing, sleeping, talking and eating got in the way of the things that really made up her life”. She seems quite cheery and self-possessed, what with her fake breasts and bottle of coins for every time she’s had sex. Before we discover quite how deceptive appearances can be, she sets about micro-managing Bronny’s efforts to dispense with her virginity, advising her to “cut off her pee mid-way” if she wants to avoid “bucket fanny”. (It’s at moments like these that you recall that teen fiction is the other furrow Fitzgerald is ploughing.)
This jolly fare sees out the first third of The Devil’s Staircase, with cameos of sexual encounters, chaotic life in the squat and, in complete contrast, the quietude of the sauna, where Bronny feels “safe, bubble-wrapped in female-only calm”, but so bored that “10 p.m. seemed like make-believe until it finally came”.
Left to herself, Bronny is unable to shake off her personal demons. She is haunted by memories of her mother’s decline and can’t help brooding over the many desirable futures that she is convinced will never be hers. Never falling in love and never having a baby head her list of impossible scenarios.
Just as the surface appearance of the cast of characters is at variance with what lies beneath, the generally visible, accessible parts of the house give no hint of what has been happening in the hidden basement. The denizens of the upper floors conduct their lives like a theatre of the absurd, oblivious to the fact that below stairs the local serial killer presides over a theatre of terror. Bronny, awakened by her own nightmares, at first puts down the odd noises she hears to her imagination. The realisation that she is not mistaken splits the skin between the parallel realities and sucks her in to a living nightmare that proves the old saying: What’s for you will not go by you.
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- Hardback - Polygon
Bronny, a young Australian, finds herself down and out in London. She's a sheltered girl - gentle and kind - who has spent her teenage years in a fearful, cautious bubble. She's never taken drugs, had sex or killed anyone. Within six weeks she's done all three.