Here is my review of Federico Axat’s “Kill the Next One” at the New York Journal of Books:
“Move over Hitchcock, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, and more. Here is a thriller to make others fade. Well-drawn characters, a devilish plot, and first-rate storytelling make this an emotional mystery that resonates and disturbs.”
In this superb translation of Kill the Next One, Argentinian author Federico Axat invites the reader to solve a most original and convoluted tale of suspense.
Ted McKay has an enviable family and every trapping of success. Yet the book opens with him holding a gun to his temple. The doorbell rings. A stranger has a proposition: Why not kill two deserving individuals before offing himself? The first would be a murderer who had mistakenly escaped justice, the second a terminally ill individual like himself.
To Ted the logic of “the Organization’s” suicide chain makes perfect sense. “He wasn’t even in favor of the death penalty,” but wouldn’t it be easier for the families to cope with murder than with suicide? And yet when Ted commits the arranged murders the crime scenes feel disturbingly odd. He recognizes people and locations he shouldn’t. His targets know him by name. Familiar mementos turn up at the scenes.
Axat has a talent for keeping dramatic tension on the rise. Nothing in this story is as it seems. Ted, the police, the gaggle of psychiatrists, and the families involved in this twisted adventure all begin to question the nature of reality. They begin to question themselves. Everything once known for certain becomes shrouded in doubt.
Recurring dreams, nightmares, and chess games constitute part of the plot. Sometimes it is hard for readers to distinguish fantasy from reality, and the appearance of the Lavender Mental Hospital turns muddy waters even more turbid. Time sweeps back and forth over the course of decades. Long ago events echo in the now until finally the past catches up with the present. Ted clutches to a talisman from the past, a lucky horseshoe, throughout these jarring events.
Just when readers think they have a grasp on what’s going on, Axat pulls a Roshomon effect. Parts II and III of the novel repeat scenes we already know from changed points of view. The repetitions echo the repeating cycles in Ted’s psychotherapy. We begin to question whether Dr. Laura is his advocate or malign.
Complications seep in as we learn that Ted had a violent adolescence. That he has had trouble distinguishing dreams and memories from reality. Much “looks astonishingly familiar” in the repeating cycles of his story. We learn more of Ted’s estranged bastard of a father, his devoted mother who succumbed to pills, dementia, and his father’s beatings. Ominously, his terminally ill murder target knows Ted’s psychiatrist, and pits doctor against patient with a warning that she is “Searching for information inside your brain . . . They’re afraid you’ll discover it on your own.”
Eventually Ted gets locked up in a high–security mental ward. Yet the murders continue. Fellow patients introduce him to a hallucinatory world: “It’s like another dimension. A world with its own rules.” The action escalates, chess and horseshoe images recur, until “Two worlds came together.”
The analogy between chess, psychosis, and murder is made clear: “You constantly have to be anticipating threats that might never materialize, and the possible variations are infinite … A sort of transference. The mind continues to calculate variations; it just can’t suddenly stop cold––that’s all it has ever done!”
Kill the Next One is a thriller that makes others fade. Well-drawn characters, a devilish plot, and first–-ate storytelling make this an emotional mystery that satisfyingly resonates at the same time that it disturbs.