The Void, the third and presumably final novel in The Tanner Sequence, by novelist Timothy S. Johnston demonstrates better than any novel I’ve ever read why you should never, ever try to force your theme. The novels in this series are not just murder thrillers, they have to be claustrophobic murder thrillers. There’s nothing wrong with this setting, and it makes for great tension generally, but with The Void the logical absurdities of the situation kept completely pulling me out of the moment and made me want to reach through my Kobo screen and slap Tanner in the face. In moments it wasn’t infuriating, it was interesting enough with a well-designed Hannibal Lecter-style villain; nevertheless, it failed to deliver entirely mainly due to the weakness of the plot.
Transporting a serial killer might seem like a simple job for CCF Homicide Investigator Kyle Tanner. After spending years apprehending murderers, he's ready to hang up his pistol. Babysitting a prisoner will bring him to Alpha Centauri, where he can search for a way to escape the CCF forever. If he makes it. When his ship breaks down in deep space and a CCF research vessel comes to his aid, Tanner realizes he's in terrible danger: the scientists on board have blocked his distress call. And when Tanner's prisoner escapes, he begins to suspect that the proximity of the research vessel had nothing to do with luck and everything to do with the CCF's relentless reach. Facing near-certain death by his own organization, Tanner must unravel a tangled skein of vengeance, duplicity and murder in deep space. But he's being held at the will of master puppeteers, and if he can't cut the strings, he'll dance straight to a gruesome, excruciating death….
There is not much that makes me angry at a book or movie quite like protagonists missing the absolutely obvious and entirely clear course of action, and them missing that course of action being the only thing that enables the story. The scientists in the biological specimen lab who cut themselves while handling some deadly disease and just say, ‘eh I’m sure it’s fine’ instead of quarantining themselves. The natural disaster response team staffers who see the alarm go off and say, ‘eh I’m sure it’s fine’ instead of alerting their superiors. I know, I know. The response is, ‘Well if they did the reasonable thing, it would be a pretty short movie/book’ to which I reply ‘Then it’s a bad movie/book.’ If the only way your story can work is if somebody you are otherwise presenting as skilled, capable, and competent has to be an absolute moron, you’re telling a bad story. The Void is one of the worst cases of this I’ve seen in a long time, and it really wrecked the book for me.
Kyle Tanner, our hero, the most successful homicide detective in the universe has done his job amazingly well yet again, and captured this hideously deadly serial killer called ‘The Reaper’ who has been sentenced, as you would, to summary execution. Except he killed somebody important enough that the politicos on the homeworld want him brought there so they can make a nice public spectacle of executing him. Fair enough. Politics get in the way all the time, no big deal. So they load him on a ship--just him, Tanner, and Tanner’s partner Shaheen--and set out. Then their ship’s drive fails. In this particular universe this basically means, ‘You are dead unless, on a million to one chance, somebody happens to find you or you can fix the problem yourself.’ Here’s where the book first lost me. You’re stuck in space, you have limited food, water, and air while you try to fix things or hope for rescue. GO KILL THE SERIAL KILLER. Seriously. He is taking up air, he is taking up food and water, he has literally already been sentenced to summary execution. Assuming you survive (which has much better odds when ⅓ of your air/food/water demands go away) they will understand. Even if they don’t, better to be alive with a bad performance review than dead.
They don’t kill him. They keep him alive, and then miraculously they are rescued. Of course, this ship is full of other people who might not much like a serial killer chilling out with them. Their ship is -also- busted so they -also- can’t actually bring this prisoner where they’re supposed to go. Their ship has power though, so evidently it makes sense to take your vicious serial killer out of his secure holding cell on the dedicated prisoner transport ship and move him over to the warmer, gravity-works more comfy jury-rigged cell on this random ship. Except no, you KILL THE SERIAL KILLER AGAIN. This is the second time you just accept the situation is non-standard and make the obvious choice. You leave him there to rot or you kill him. He even thinks about it more than once, but no, he has to follow orders, and then SURPRISE once you put him in the lower security place, he gets loose and starts killing people. So now we come to the trademark theme of Johnston: close-quarters claustrophobic violent murder. Awesome, you did it, you got there! All you had to do was take the most skilled and competent cop in the universe and have him make multiple absolutely ass-stupid decisions in a row. That doesn’t jeopardize the strength of the character at all! Oh wait.
It’s so tragic because the actual murder mystery thriller part of the story is great. Johnston does do a really good job building that tension. There’s always other stuff going on with the people in the group, so you never know exactly who is on the side of whom. He plays with his settings very cleverly, and it’s never just a Jason-esque brutal killer. We even go back to the Hannibal Lecter comparison and have some great scenes where the killer starts to mess with the mind of the detective. But I was so very far from invested by the time this happened because of the brutal mishandling of what would actually happen in the name of making the plot work that I couldn’t muster the interest. Here is literally all Johnston needed to do: Tanner is transporting the Reaper in a specially designed super-secure holding cell on a ship which is not his ship. Maybe it’s a science ship or a trade ship or something headed in the right direction, but regardless, The Reaper is in this cell, he’s not going anywhere. Then while the ship is en route, some horrible disaster. Entire power system fails, the redundancies don’t kick in like they’re supposed to. In a panic, Tanner runs to the cell to find it standing open. The killer is on the loose. There, done.
You have your killer loose on a ship in space, among innocents. You have all the opportunity to make it not be an accident, you have all the opportunity for others to be involved. What you don’t have is multiple days passing where Tanner has to be an absolute idiotic moron in order to set it all up. Yes, you can say, ‘Obviously Tanner would just shoot him or turf him out an airlock, but that would make a pretty crappy book’ and then go on to make a crappy book anyway because the plot hinges on the protagonist having to screw up. But all you have to do is just take that option out of his hands, and he can get on with his job without first having to appear to be terrible at it.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Carina Press via NetGalley.