Sometimes a book is good, and sometimes it’s not good. And sometimes, it’s something which feels like it could have been good. Pendulum is one of those books. There’s a perfectly good book in there about how much it would suck in real life to be the victim of a botched serial killing. It opens with the protagonist being hanged by some obvious loon, dodging death by sheer chance, and jumping out of a window before the killer makes up any ground. Jumping out windows hurts, which is why it hasn’t been on my to-do list in simply ages, and running off to the police to explain that some loon tried to hang you leads to stays in hospitals of various kinds, not to mention strait jackets and all kinds of drugs which might be fun if you were taking them at your own preferred pace.
As long as the book is about how a pretty ordinary schlub is out of his depth dealing with lunacy, it’s a pretty good idea. It’s not super-well-written, but at least there’s something here which hasn’t been tried before, and Hamdy is doing his level best to get across the sheer awfulness of the character’s predicament.
If only Hamdy had stuck to that. But there’s more, much much more. On the one hand - spoiler alert - the book is really about the menace of a social media, and specifically Facebook. On the other hand, about every forty minutes all hell breaks loose and a whole bunch of people get killed. Every forty minutes? That seems curiously specific. Was I sitting there with a stopwatch? No, I was sitting there with a lifetime’s worth of pop culture, shaking my head wearily as Hamdy kept thinking it was time to end the episode on a cliff hanger. Just as the world is filling up with people telling us that TV is becoming more novelistic, someone wrote a novel which felt the need to pace itself like a low-budget TV show. I don’t know what was going on there. Did Hamdy get told to cram in more action sequences, or did he get told to put some kind of novel either side of the action sequences? Or did he really think that both belonged together?
It’s a shame. There could have been a good book here. A much simpler book. A book set in England with a simple cat and mouse game with a loon and an ordinary guy trying to catch each other. Instead, there’s massive gunplay, an ocean spanning plot, a villain who is simultaneously omnipotent and an idiot, and a game of bingo for anyone who wants to read it going “Oh, that bit’s totally taken out of Speed!” whenever the plot goes into high budget mode.
Instead, the books can’t make its mind up about what it wants to be, and it winds up making no sense in all kinds of different directions. If the serial killer is just a creep getting his rocks off hanging people, then of course he needs a superhero costume and a mask. But if he’s actually a tortured anti-hero taking a complex revenge on people he despises, then it doesn’t make sense for him to dress up. He doesn’t really care what his victims think, and a costume is more trouble than it’s worth. And sure, it makes a great last act twist for the villain to be a guy with a bigger plan, but the bigger plan doesn’t make any sense of what’s been done up to now. And round and round it goes in circles.
I complain about all this because the book is at its best when it’s about the impact of wickedness. There’s a lot of work done here on the impact of trauma and the way the people are marked forever when they’re victims of violence. It ends on just that note. Hamdy had something to say here - something which doesn’t show up often enough in fiction - and it’s a shame that the fireworks are getting in the way.