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Gardner McKay

Little Brown

US Trade Hardcover

ISBN 0-316-56118-5

455 pages; $24.00;

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2002



Mystery, Horror

There's a lot of money to be made with a serial killer novel. Forget the book profits -- they're dispensable. We're talking about movie rights, development fees, ancillary marketing rights, video rights, appearance fees, first-run cable and network rights. Somebody is staking a lot of money of Gardner McKay's first novel 'Toyer'. Take for example the gimmick cover. There's not one -- there are a dozen different covers, each one featuring a face shot of a different, beautiful model. 'Toyer' is that rare book that you can judge accurately by the cover. There's a lot of style, not much substance, and little originality. It's all surface. Scratch it, and you won't find blood; you'll expose only the struts beneath the billboard.

The warning signs appear early on, in the prologue, when you realize that the jacket flap verbiage is taken verbatim from the novel. The prologue describes Los Angeles in grandiose terms, and is entirely italicized, in case you weren't able to figure out that it's important. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles it describes does not exist on this planet. It's a two-dimensional collage created from scraps of pictures printed in magazines. The characters that follow don't get any more interesting or complex than the city. The reader will quickly know whether or not they're going to like 'Toyer', it's written in a style where the run-on sentence is king, the writer has been freed from the constraints of grammar, the writer flies above the page. McKay is trying to affect a very certain style, he does so successfully, his success is just one of his undoings.

The plot here is fairly predictable, with the exception of McKay's great invention -- a serial killer who does not actually kill his victims. This part is actually quite chilling and rather clever. Toyer has been given his name because he toys with his victims. He puts them into a coma from which they are not likely to awaken. The scenes where this happens are effective spook pieces. Unfortunately, this invention is undermined by the reaction of the LAPD and LA DA's office to Toyer. Because he's not killing his victims, they're pretty sure that they can't get him to do much jail time if he's caught. So, this "serial disabler" (not what he's called in the novel), is just shunted aside for higher priorities. I was so flabbergasted by this turn of events, I actually called my local DA's office to ask them about this. They quickly reeled off several other charges beyond 'aggravated assault' that the characters in the book claim is all that they can charge Toyer with. So, in the novel, since the police can't and won't do too much about Toyer, an intrepid doctor who is taking care of the victims does. In the process she has an unconvincing breakdown. In the end it is just doctor versus Toyer.

One of the things McKay gets down best is the reaction of the press to all of this. When he's talking about the competition between the two papers in Los Angeles, his writing has the ring of truth. But even here, he overheats his action, cooking it until the reader's suspension of disbelief has disintegrated. There are some truly stong and chilling moments in 'Toyer', and the author does try hard for a very satisfying ending. However, the stylized prose and the plot flaws hold back the novel from being a success. If you like the style of dust jacket prose, you may find that 'Toyer' is just plaything to pass a few slow moments at the doctor's office.