Book review — “The Calling: A John Luther Novel” by Neil Cross

If you love the BBC’s Luther, but haven’t read this yet: support your local bookstore! If you’re just getting into the series and want the backstory: this is a good place to start. (This does contain not a lot of spoilers for the book, but definitely spoilers for the series, so you might want to come back later if you haven’t seen it at all yet.)

Luther book cover
Cover design by S&S Art Dept/Matt Johnson

Seeing as my reviews of Series 3 of Luther have garnered a good bit of attention, I thought I should round it off by plucking this off my shelves and reviewing it properly. It’s been over a year since I read it, but it’s still fresh in my mind as one of the best novelisations/backstories of a TV character I’ve ever read. In a book journal review of the German translation I read a few months back, the reviewer said that the novel’s use of the present tense and Neil Cross’s “screenwriting style” made it practically unreadable. Of course, it’s a matter of taste, but since we’re talking about it, I must say that I wildly disagree. Neil Cross’s style is different from what one might expect of a novel, that’s for sure, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. His way of constructing the narrative relies heavily on imagery and painting the scene the way a screenwriter would instruct the camera to, which does interesting things for the cinema in your head. It’s heavy on dialogue, the insights into his characters are to the point and brief, but not without depth. Neil Cross unpacks his characters’ thoughts by what they say and what they do, less by the introspective window he throws open.

This novel details the beginning of the end for DCI John Luther — the case that very nearly breaks him, or has indeed broken him, perhaps. In The Calling, he crosses a line, the first time of many. The case revolves around Henry Madsen, the man who abducted and murdered children and who we see dangling over an abyss at the beginning of the TV series, the man who wakes from a coma calling Luther’s name.  In the pilot episode, Zoe tells John that the train in his head never stops. He can’t calm down, can’t let go of what he’s seeing on the job on a daily basis, but he also can’t be doing any other job (yet). There’s a force in Luther’s head that drives him — it’s one of the descriptors most often used in conjunction with John, I think. ‘Driven.’ ‘In too deep’ would be another shoe that fits. Neil Cross shows us John’s complex struggle with what must be done and what the rules tell him he cannot do in scenic panning shots, showing his tall frame hunched over leaning on a wall, trying to contain his rage. Shows us Zoe watching exactly this on the telly at home, knowing what her husband is going through at the same time as she makes a discovery of her own that will change their lives forever. (I am trying not to spoil too much here.)

Of course, the seeds for the series are (retroactively) sown here: Luther’s Sergeant before Ripley starts taking serious issue with her boss’s increasingly dubious tactics, and we are actually introduced to Justin. The reader can see that he’s immediately fascinated by Luther, and it becomes clear that Luther is willing to cut him slack past the initial awkwardness in the pilot episode because Justin did impress him with his work. Another, much more important thing happens between Zoe and John at the very end: Alice concluded in Series 1 that Zoe knows what John did, and that it wasn’t the reason why she left him. In the novel, we see Alice was correct. John calls Zoe just before cornering Madsen for their final confrontation, and she knows. It’s probably the most heartbreaking thing, in hindsight. Zoe meets Mark North during the case she’s handling during the events of the novel, and temptation lingers at the edges along with grief and resistance. That’s the great thing about Neil Cross’s writing, he doesn’t deal in gender stereotypes. No blame is ever laid with Zoe — nor, strictly speaking, with Luther. It’s nobody’s fault. Things happen. Luther’s choices are his, Zoe’s choices are hers, and it’s life that tears them apart. Zoe’s right to be disappointed in John is never taken from her, even while we understand John’s obsession and inability to let go. Zoe’s objections to Luther’s excuses aren’t dismissed as nagging, but as someone’s right to expect more from a relationship than dead bodies. Their relationship, their marriage, is falling apart, but it remains beautiful in that: they love each other, they’re just not the right people for each other. Luther going off the rails in Series 1 is something new, something separate from the swan song of the novel.

DSU Rose Teller gets a nickname in the book that I don’t think we’ve heard on the show: they call her the “Duchess.” She’s a tough boss, same as ever — her struggles to the top, being a woman, aren’t front and centre, but they’re not forgotten about by any means. Luther respects the hell out of her, as much as they clash often enough.  While “duchess” may be, coming from many in the Force, not be meant favourably, Luther exempts himself from that by thinking, “they don’t call her [that] for nothing.”

Of course, we also meet Ian Reed — showing nothing of his terrible double life just yet. He’s just John’s best mate who asks him a favour; incidentally involving someone we meet in the finale of Series 1… A lot of things are coming full circle if you read The Calling, and that’s half the fun; along with the deep, deep spiral into John Luther’s mind and life as a copper.

Finally, a warning: as with the series, the descriptions of violence and crimes committed are graphic and blunt. If you’re triggered by violence involving sex and reproduction, as well as violence against children, this is not the novel for you.

The Calling: A John Luther Novel
by Neil Cross
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK

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