The Nothing Man – A Review

I think I need to stop apologising for the long gaps between posts, and just accept that my posting on this blog will be sporadic at best. Having returned to working from home at the end of August, I then returned to my desk officially in September. I was quite busy, but was starting to get into the swing of things after months of furlough when Abdominal Pain 2: Electric Boogaloo occurred. To make a long story short I have gallstones and the process of sorting them out is ongoing.

On this plus side, while I’ve been waiting for various appointments and a procedure, I’ve had a little more time to read. I loved Kiley Reid’s debut novel Such a Fun Age – to the extent I stayed up late the night before I had to wake up at 6:30 to get to the hospital in order to finish it – but in this review I’d like to talk a little about The Nothing Man. Because this book… this book. I went in with very high expectations, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not often I get to say that!

I was the girl who survived the Nothing Man. 
Now I am the woman who is going to catch him…

You’ve just read the opening pages of The Nothing Man, the true crime memoir Eve Black has written about her obsessive search for the man who killed her family nearly two decades ago. 

Supermarket security guard Jim Doyle is reading it too, and with each turn of the page his rage grows. Because Jim was – is – the Nothing Man. 

The more Jim reads, the more he realises how dangerously close Eve is getting to the truth. He knows she won’t give up until she finds him. He has no choice but to stop her first…

I’ve read a lot of true crime books, watched several documentaries, and always try to catch the latest episodes from Mike of ‘That Chapter’ on YouTube, where he discusses different disappearances and murder cases, most of which I’m unfamiliar with. I once went through a period of binging clips from the show Deadly Women during my lunch breaks. And that’s just me. To say that true crime is having a moment would be accurate, but it’s something I don’t feel I’m properly able to explain. Even for my own part – why am I so interested in these cases when, statistically, I’d be a likely victim? Luckily I’ve ordered a book – Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe – that investigates our cultural fascination with true crime, particularly as it pertains to women. Maybe once I’ve read it I’ll be able to explain this phenomenon better.

My point in saying all of this is that my expectations for The Nothing Man were high. Despite my interest in true crime I don’t tend to read many thrillers, as I often labour under the (probably false) belief that a lot of them are stories full of tropes and cliches, churned out to sell at airports. I initially thought the same of this one when I saw the cover, I won’t lie, but when I read the premise I knew I had to read the book. As it turns out, a character I myself have written is a killer who is hiding in plain sight, decades after committing his crimes, working a menial job. This remarkable similarity, combined with the true crime memoir element, piqued my interest more than the usual ‘mysterious woman who lives upstairs’ or ‘retired detective is called back for one last case’ sort of thrillers.

The Nothing Man is structured brilliantly, moving between extracts from Eve Black’s book – including author acknowledgements, a postscript and so on, a genuine book-within-a-book – and Jim’s narrative, the differences made clear not just in the different writing styles but through different fonts. Throughout the book Jim is reading Eve’s memoir and you read along with him, making you feel complicit as you see the events of the book as a whole from his perspective. The book doesn’t just focus on the killer and his one survivor, however – Eve’s memoir details not only The Nothing Man’s attack on her family but the stories of his other victims. Ryan Howard makes a very clear point that, while we can reel off the names of infamous serial killers with ease, we have a harder time recalling the names of their victims, and we ought to know more about them besides the gory details of their deaths, and the person who took their lives. The pacing of the overall narrative was fantastic, and I’m honestly already planning to re-read it soon, trying to read it more slowly in order to appreciate the brilliant twists and turns and Jim’s descent into paranoia that he’ll be caught…

I realise this review is short but I don’t want to say anything more at the risk of revealing important plot points or some of the twists that occur in the book’s final act. Needless to say I was gripped and finished this book in two days – I would have finished it in one were it not for a pesky medical procedure! The premise is one I haven’t seen before, and not only did I love how this novel was structured but I found the characters compelling and the overall message to be a very timely one. I hope to read more by Catherine Ryan Howard soon – at present, I wouldn’t hesitate to say The Nothing Man is one of my favourite books of the year so far, and considering how many books I’ve managed to read this year, what with lockdown and recovering from surgery, it’s up against some pretty stiff competition.

Pun somewhat intended.

I’ll show myself out.

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