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Red, Red Robin

Stephen Gallagher

Ballantine Books

US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-345-38644-2

378 pages; $18.00

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel


Mystery, Horror

The difference between a great thriller and a great novel is difficult to define. Stephen Gallagher's 'Red, Red Robin' is certainly the former and often, but not always the latter. Operating in the territory between Thomas Harris and Ruth Rendell, Gallagher offers carefully crafted characters who live through a hellish experience that is all too believable. Unlike Harris, he avoids the forensic focus and follows Rendell's example of complex characters brought to life by superior prose. Unlike Rendell, he explores the explicity horrific side of his characters' inclinations, taking the reader on a hellish journey through physical terror. 'Red, Red Robin' is a novel that operates on both sides of the equation, exploring psychological degradation and bodily fear with equal dexterity.

Wisely, Gallagher starts his novel focusing on the psychological side, which keeps it a few cuts above the apparent movie-of-the-week simplicity of the plot. Ruth Lasseter, who is having an affair with a married co-worker, needs an escort for the office party. But Tim Hagan, the man she picks abducts and tries to kill her afterwards. Though she manages to escape his physical presence, she cannot escape the psychological scars the entire set of circumstances creates, nor their cause in her own past.

Instead, she pursues the man herself, refusing to believe him dead when the evidence suggests this, pushing herself farther into debt, poverty and degradation to track him down. Gallagher handles Ruth's downfall with amazing ease, evoking the terror in domestic and workplace situations going bad as Ruth's obsessions begin to rule her life and swallow her own good sense.

But he goes further than the mind alone. Gallagher follows his own creation, Tim Hagan, into Hagan's own past, a childhood that has created a monster. As Gallagher peels away the layers of Hagan's past and Ruth's present, the two core characters come closer and closer to meeting, damaging and killing those who make the mistake of trying to befriend them.

Occasionally, Gallagher's evocations of physical terror seem to disrupt the smoth flow of character development in 'Red, Red Robin', and distract from the Masterpiece Theatre' quality he creates in the other sections. But, on the other hand, they do serve quite well as horrifying visions, and certainly aren't out of place, merely unexpected. And Gallagher has enough plot twists around to reward even the most demanding fan of Rendell's Barbara Vine fiction.