Thursday, September 5, 2013


Poppet by Mo Hayder. Book 6 in the Jack Caffery series. Originally published May, 2013 by Atlantic Monthly Press. Approx. 400 pages.

I had first heard of Mo Hayder when I was searching on Amazon for books on The Rape of Nanking a few years back. One suggestion that popped up was for her book Tokyo (released Stateside as The Devil of Nanking). Digging through her past works, my interest was piqued by her Jack Caffery detective series. Most descriptions focus on how shocking and gory they are, and obligatory comparisons to Thomas Harris were made. Now, I personally despise when people feel that a comparison must be made to establish a point of reference, and I do not find it particularly anomalous that a woman could compose sinister, disturbing reading fare. I tucked into Birdman (Jack Caffery, Book 1), and found it to be a good police read, with some of the nasty bits a tad forced. Not reading any of the subsequent Caffery titles, I was still drawn to Poppet by that creepy-ass doll on the cover.

The good news is that you can read Poppet as a standalone novel, or without having read all the previous volumes. The bad news is that Poppet really isn't a very good book.

Poppet focuses on one AJ LeGrande (yes, you read that correctly, focuses meaning that he, not Caffery, is the main character). AJ is the senior nursing coordinator at Beechway, a mental institution with some seriously messed-up guests. Strange goings-on are afoot at Beechway, and they seem a little too far-fetched even by the standards of the residents. While surreal fantasies are the norm, it is when the visions become universal that there is a cause for concern. And what is happening at Beechway doesn't involve only visions, but episodes of self-harm as well, and, quite possibly, two deaths. It is up to our intrepid middle-management crime solving duo of AJ and his girlfriend, Melanie Arrow (his supervisor), to see what is going on. Oh, and by the way, the alleged, possibly supernatural, perpetrator? A former, sadistic dwarf matron known as "The Maude".

Going by that description, what Poppet might have been is a solid, supernatural and/or serial killer novel. The pieces are there; there is the shiny new institution built upon the bones of an old workhouse. There is a nice, sympathetic character in AJ. Hayder's mastery of descriptive prose is on point, the English landscapes dance off of the pages and into the readers' head. Wait, did I just say her writing is solid? Why yes I did. So what went wrong?

I have to wonder, was this book really meant to be a Caffery novel, or did the publisher insist on getting another jug from the cash cow? To be frank, Caffery has a secondary role; and that role is not even integral to the story. For the bulk of Poppet, AJ tries to decipher the goings-on himself, so as not to bring outside investigation that might compromise Melanie's job. So what does Caffery have to do in this tale? For the first 75%, the chapters with him deal with a previous case, and another officer. The case involves one Misty Kitson, which was the subject of the previous Caffery novel "Skin". The other officer is Phoebe "Flea" Marley, a police diver. I was a little worried that she was going to be a stereotypical "tough as nails little woman", but she was a solid character. Hayder infuses her primary characters with depth and baggage, it is the supporting cast that is relegated to rote formula, right down to AJ's "sassy black woman stereotype" Aunt.

To summarize: Jack Caffery's role in this Jack Caffery novel is to recap the events of a previous Jack Caffery novel, meaning that if you already read that novel, then you are just re-reading a good chunk of it, and if you haven't read it, you probably have zero motivation to now that you know how it all pans out. Don't get me wrong though; Caffery makes some obligatory inquiries later on, but he is not central to the resolution. Sorry if that is kind of spoiler-y.

As for other aspects of structure and plausibility, they suffer as well. I really don't want to go too far into spoiler territory, but you know off the bat that The Maude is neither Caffery, Flea, or AJ. And, unfortunately, since most of the ancillary characters are so one-dimensional, the serial killer pool is dreadfully small. Matters are not helped by a slipshod, unsatisfactory climax (wrapped up with a downright corny ending). It's not even the fact that Poppet is not as gory as one might expect from Hayder, it's just that the violence, when there, is arbitrary, and not contributory. Again, the whole thing smells of one thing that was repackaged at the last minute to be something else.

I've mentioned some of the positives of this novel already; I would like to add to these Hayder's attention to detail. I am not solely talking about descriptive prose, but the amount of research she has obviously done regarding law enforcement and mental health institutions. The environments, procedures, and protocols have a definite authenticity to them. This is also very obvious in Flea's diving scenes, we feel ourselves being wrapped in that diving suit, and suffer the same body aches as a result, compounded by a harshly cold British October. Hayder peppers her prose with brand name drops; and while these make certain scenes more tangible, it also dates the novel out of the starting gate. I also liked the short chapter format; it worked well to switch POV's, and the chapters were cleverly named (taking terms from within the chapter itself).

It really is not fun to come off like I am doing little more than dumping on this novel, but the fact it, this is a work with excellent set pieces and characters that gets lost in poor execution.

Here's what it is:
A novel by a solid author that you want to go somewhere, you hope it goes somewhere, but it ultimately goes nowhere.. A Jack Caffery novel with a painfully small amount of him. A police procedural that would have been better off as a horror/suspense work.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

If nothing says 'creepy' like a doll, take a look at that soulless, feline doll that adorns the cover. It's a deliciously disturbing cover choice. If only the content of the novel matched the tone of the cover....
The only downside is the font style/color of the word 'Poppet'.

Cover Final Score:


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