About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Reaction, Not Review, to Signature Kill by David Levien

When I review a book for the blog I try to think through what I liked and disliked about the book. I analyze the book. My last post was such a review of Signature Kill by David Levien. This post is my reaction to the book.

I almost did not finish Signature Kill. The graphic violence quotient far exceeded my tolerance level. For potential readers of the book the balance of this post is bound to contain spoilers.

What stopped me in the midst of reading one page was the description by the killer, when a boy, of dousing a robin chick with lighter fluid and setting the bird alight and watching the bird’s body break down into “a loose gelatinous ball”.

Later the killer, having dismembered a woman he killed, assembles a macabre tableau of body parts:

Her head was pointed in the opposite direction it was meant to. Facing away from him, it sat on top of the pile. The base of her skull, covered by lank blonde hair with dark ginger streaks, rested directly on the shoulders of the torso, while the neck was missing altogether. Then after another instant, Behr located it, a cylinder, removed from its points of attachment, the severed spinal column a white ring centered by pink marrow, ….

I will end the quote there. When I reached that point in the passage I thought about skipping the reading of the rest of the description of the scene. I decided I either keep reading the book in whole or stop altogether. I went ahead and the description continued in graphic detail.

Because Levien is a good writer the violent images are vivid and overwhelming.

While sickened by the passages of torture and killing I still kept reading Signature Kill.

Having started a book I feel a general obligation to finish reading the book, especially when, as here the publisher has given me a copy.

Another part of me was curious to see how Levien sought to have the killer explain his actions.

The killer, on viewing photos of the above creation:

His works are his prayers, his testament to his own godliness and immortality, and that comes through.

The explanation left me reflecting on “why” which I will pursue in my next post.

My visceral reaction to the book was one of pain. The violent scenes overpowered the story.

I do not read crime fiction to be left sickened by the reading experience. I have enough reading at the office of the cruelties men and women inflict upon each other.

At the big thrill blog Levien discusses writing the book:

“When I was in the thick of it, researching and writing for many hours a day, the work became a very dark place. I felt a deep sense of disquiet. I wouldn’t say I had nightmares, but my dreams became infected by graphic imagery and a sense of heavy foreboding. I stayed in there for a long time, and when the book was finally written, it was a relief to no longer have an excavation of the mind of a depraved killer on my to-do list.”

I agree the book “became a very dark place”.

I appear to be in a minority with regard to the graphic content. At Goodreads I looked at several reviews and but a few mentioned the extreme violence and none were put off by the descriptions. I do not need detailed frequent depictions of torture and violence, whether to men or to women, to grasp a serial killer is monstrous.

I do not expect I will force myself to continue to read a comparable book in the future.
Levien, David - (2015) - Signature Kill


  1. There is an entire school of this kind of crime novel, Bill. There are small press publishers who ONLY want this kind of book. Can you imagine? Clearly there's an audience for this kind of "dark" crime novel. What an understatement that is! I have a long list of adjectives more suited for these books. I find the abundance of these books to be a reflection of a world that has no restraint anymore. No taste even. Everything in excess, everything must test the limits. How far can I go to shock you? The reason I gave up reading contemporary crime fiction is because of this obsession with torture, sadism and the perverse. TV is inundated with it as well. I used to like Game of Thrones until that too turned into a showcase for perverse torture sequences and insane violence.

    Why feel obligated to finish a book even if a publisher sent the copy to you. My motto: life is too short to waste on books that disgust or infuriate me. I receive many review copies and if the book is a turn-off for whatever reason I never finish it and I dump the book at a used bookstore or thrift store. I don't even review it. More power to you for sticking through to the end. I just don't have the time or patience anymore.

    1. John: Well said. You have made a great addition to the post. Your phrase "obsession with torture, sadism and the perverse" is so apt. Thanks for your description of how you handle books "that disgust or infuriate" you.

  2. Bill - I stand with you when it comes to graphic violence. To me, it isn't necessary to tell a compelling story. What's more, that kind of violence more often than not adds nothing to the story. I can candidly say that I will probably not be reading this, just on that score alone. Stomach-churning violence really isn't my thing.

  3. Margot: Thanks for the support. I find it depressing to think readers want books with such graphic violence strewn through the book.

  4. It's nice to know I'm not a completely lone voice in the wilderness on the issue of this kind of violence. The last book I read that was too much for me was Pierre Lemaitre's ALEX - it was truly awful in its depictions of death and torture. Then there was the last book of Linda Castillo's that I listened to on audio book where it took nearly an hour to describe a murder scene in horrendously unnecessary and bloody detail. Ugh. We must be in the minority - otherwise this stuff wouldn't sell. This makes me sad.

    1. Bernadette: Thanks for the comment. I equally feel sad. I fear such graphic descriptions desensitize us to violent death.

  5. Ugh! That does feel gratuitous and over-the-top. I think implied violence can be sufficiently compelling that we don't need it broken down into every little detail. Glad you raised this issue - hopefully we're not just a few lone voices...

    1. Marina: Thanks for the comment. At the moment I feel we are but a few.

  6. Count me in with those who love their crime fiction but do NOT want to read this kind of thing. And I find it depressing that there is such a market for it.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. Maybe we can lead a movement encouraging less graphic descriptions. I find the actual plot obscured by frequent descriptions of great violence.