CRIME CULTURE: Murder or suicide? This is the question which lies at the heart of Benjamin Stevenson’s sophomore novel Either Side of Midnight. G. L. Marlowe with this review of a gripping detective fiction story that foregrounds male mental health in a dodgy media world.
When does another person’s actions constitute a malicious intent?
“‘A grown man got cyberbullied to death?’ he’d asked doubtfully. People seemed to insert the phrase ‘grown man’ into insults to imply someone is not worthy, that their fallibility, their flaws, would be better attributed to a woman or a child.” (pg 261-2)
Our story begins with the suicide of Sam Midford, a television presenter for a comedic-current events program Midnight Tonight. A suicide that’s committed live on television for a million viewers to witness. This commences as a story of a beloved Aussie larrikin who rose to prominence after a traumatic event involving a Ferris wheel. But, when child pornography is found on his computer, his death turns into a tale of a disgraced media personality. To Sam’s identical twin brother, Harry, something seems off. He enlists almost ex-con, Jack Quick, to prove his brother’s death was a murder.
We are introduced to Jack Quick, our Raymond Chandler-esque hardboiled detective, sitting in a cell in Long Bay Gaol, counting down his final days. A documentary producer, turned jailhouse podcaster, Jack isn’t looking to have anything to do with crime anymore. However, eager for money to ensure the medical care of his brother, he takes the offer from Harry. Much like our favourite hardboiled detectives, Jack has a past, he has secrets. Instead of coating it in thick layers of alcoholism, cigarette smoke and sex, he copes a different way: Jack Quick is bulimic. A word he refuses to even say out loud.
Here, Stevenson should be commended for the way he addresses mental health and illness within his characters. Most of the men in this novel are trying to cope with life which is often brutal. Especially when mental health is such a taboo subject in masculine environments. Jack’s bulimia is never downplayed and informs his character for the entirety of the novel.
This is ultimately a story about men who don’t know how to communicate. Men who can’t reconcile who they are and who they think they should be. Unable to admit they are suffering. Men muddling through life trying to pick up the pieces after tragedy. Trying to raise families, trying to make it through another day and trying to do the right thing.
Now their lives centre on the suicide of a television personality, whose death has ripped a hole through the lives of his family, those he once knew and those he never knew.
This is very much a book of its time. After cases like that of Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy, the use of words to incite suicide poses an interesting legal question that the world is still grappling with. At what point has a person committed a crime and murdered another using something as seemingly inconsequential as a few words on a screen. Is there any culpability for those who use their words or even the click of a mouse on an Instagram poll urging a young woman to kill herself, like in the Davia Emilia case? Stevenson references cases like this coupled with brief allusions to viral sensations like the ‘Chk Chk Boom girl‘.
The media’s fascination with bloodshed and violence, something we see more that we have constant access to news streams. Sam’s death becomes a two-minute tragedy, eclipsed by the next crime. He is also a tall poppy easily cut down.
This is a decidedly Australian novel: seen in news segments comparing the latest sports scandal to Todd Carney’s infamous urination into a certain orifice in a segment called Who’s Been Drinking Their Own Piss. More seriously, Jack’s character foregrounds the detriment of Australia’s Aussie battler attitude and the way it affects young men. Intersecting with this is a comment on the media industry’s fascination with the right look.
Stevenson intersperses the hard questions with comedic moments. How do you talk about murder in front of a four-year-old without tipping her off that that’s what you’re talking about? He has a knack for brilliant similes: “His teeth were like American Republican voters: white and straight” there was a definite charm to this book. Alongside a twist to the classic locked room mystery.
This was an enjoyable book. What Stevenson really should be applauded for is his characterisation and going beyond the surface of detective fiction. In fact, his characters are the reason to read this book rather than the mystery. I wasn’t quite convinced between the linking of some of the evidence and the way conclusions were drawn. Agatha Christie managed to get away with this by the big reveal at the end where everything is tied up with a neat little bow but here it seems like every time the plot stalled something conveniently happened to keep it going. When a reader can see the author’s hand moving in the background, it stops the suspension of disbelief.
Overall, Either Side of Midnight provides an enjoyable read not so much for the crime but for the complex male relationships. Hopefully, the latter is something that will occur in more crime novels. Refreshing to read, compelling and a solid sophomore novel.