Some time ago I wrote a rather light-hearted piece about villains and what made them sexy however being sexy is not the only thing at which villains can excel. They can make us fearful. They can fill us with loathing. And sometimes, sometimes they can make us care.
When I read J.D. Mader’s novel ‘Joe Cafe’ I did not know what to expect, of the story or the characters within it. I knew that Mader wrote well from reading his posts on Indies Unlimited however there is an almighty chasm between a short piece and a novel. What works for one often does not work for the other. I need not have worried. Mader makes the transition from short form to long with an ease that kept me reading when I should have been doing other, more productive things; we almost missed out on dinner entirely on the night ‘Joe Cafe’ was nearing its conclusion!
In many ways ‘Joe Cafe’ is a simple story. We learn almost from the beginning that the villain of the piece is a character called Chet. Chet arrives in town and goes to Joe Cafe – and yes the misspelling is deliberate – for a meal. Something upsets him and he murders four people in very horrible ways. Of the four deaths only one is clean and what might be called merciful.
The four deaths tell the police that the murderer is both very good at what he does and emotionally involved but they have no idea who this murderer might be or why he has chosen to kill apparently random targets in a small diner. A short while later the local policeman, Michael, discovers that the murderer knows him and has apparently used these deaths as a form of revenge. The ‘why’ remains a mystery, at least to Michael, however we, the outsiders looking in, are granted insights into Chet’s past that answer the question. For Michael the process of unravelling just continues in confusion.
And then there is a second crime, unrelated to the first except in so far as Chet is the perpetrator. This crime is the abduction of a professional dancer from a strip club. Given Chet’s apparent lack of remorse for any of the deaths he has caused the fact that he keeps Sara, the dancer, alive would be strange but for the fact that we already know that he has issues with beautiful women and possibly sex in general.
It was about this point that I started realising that the real protagonist in this psychological thriller was Chet himself. So who is Chet? My first thought was that he was a psychopath and the trail of dead bodies in his past would seem to confirm that guess yet there is something not quite right about that easy definition. The Ted Bundy’s of the world are characterised by superficial charm, intelligence and an almost complete lack of empathy. For anyone. Chet does not quite fit this description. Yes, he kills without thought. Yes, he seems to need to kill. And yet, and yet… there is something so broken about him. Is he a pure psychopath or is he something more human, a psychopath ‘made’ by circumstance?
As I continued reading I came to see that Chet is more ‘rogue’ than pure psychopath. The distinction between the two is fine, I’ll admit, however a rogue is someone who does terrible things because he or she has been pushed too far. In Chet’s case the pushing began in childhood with an abusive father, a lack of stability, bullying and a lack of acceptance. It culminated in Vietnam where Chet is taught how to be a true killing machine. Of course Chet does not fight this process. As he says himself, he has always found hatred and ‘being bad’ to be things that came naturally to him. And so he ends up hating everyone, except for Sara the dancer. She tugs at some small remnant of the man he might have been. He finds that he can’t rape her or kill her and so the two of them play a game of cat and mouse until the relationship between them develops into something else, at least for Chet. He is aware of the insanity of feeling this way but he is incapable of stopping himself and so the story continues towards a hopeless ending. Someone is going to have to die. They both know it yet the foolish hope that there may be a way out continues to tease until the moment of confrontation finally arrives and one of them dies.
I do not normally describe a plot in such detail when I review a book but in this instance getting to the climax is the whole purpose of the novel. There is intense beauty in the portrayal of these strange, broken people and the telling becomes more important than the final resolution. Having said that I have to quickly qualify my statement by saying that the resolution completely shocked me because, like Chet, I kept hoping that somehow a miracle would happen.
If you are looking for a comfortable murder mystery then ‘Joe Cafe’ is not for you. However if you want to look inside the head of a rogue and travel the seedier paths of life for a short while then ‘Joe Cafe’ will leave you breathless. I honestly don’t know whether this novel contained any typos or not because I was so rivetted by the story I simply did not notice such imperfections. I suspect there were no imperfections because the quality of the prose and the attention to craft were both so good.
If I were to make any criticism of the novel at all it would be a wistful wish that it had not ended so abruptly. The character of Michael the policeman was told with great sensitivity yet at the end I felt as if he had been left hanging, just a little. In real life things happen, people are destroyed and there is no tying up of loose threads to give meaning to the destruction. Nonetheless I am naive enough to have wished for just a little more meaning to Michael’s pain. Ultimately though Joe Cafe is not a story about Michael or any of the other rather wonderful characters. It is a story about hope and I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what makes people tick.