“Hi. Here’s my business card. I’m not a copper — I did used to be but I got struck off for drug abuse. I’m really a scientist; no, really, I am. I study genetics. As you might remember, you donated your DNA ten years ago as part of some criminal investigation. You were eliminated as a suspect, of course, but we hung onto your DNA. Just because we can, you know, British government and all. I don’t work for the police lab anymore, but a friend is smuggling out DNA samples for me to manipulate illegally, and yours was one of those. I have some bad news for you. You have a bad genotype. It’s the same kind of bad genotype that psychopathic serial killers have. Wait! Put that down! I’m not saying you are one, honestly! Just that you could be, if you got stressed. Stressed? Oh, I don’t know, like if some bloke came around and gave you his business card and told you that you had the same genetics as a serial killer. That sort of thing. Could be stressful. Stress is bad for you. You should control it. Well, that’s it. I’m off, those other possible-psychotic killers won’t track themselves down. Call me!”
That, in one paragraph, is the premise of John Macken’s Breaking Point, a British science-thriller set in London. Maitland,the main character, is a geneticist who has discovered that every serial killer in Britain that they have DNA on have the same five broken genes. Maitland has developed a theory that DNA screening can be used to identify future serial killers before they kill. In an American book, this concept would ignite a firestorm of debate about personal liberty versus public safety; innocence versus “preemptive” punishment; predestination versus free will, and lots of social issues. In Britain, apparently, not so much. This is a fascinating idea that was squandered, for me, by the unconvincing characters and stodgy, eipsodic nature of the book. Ten pages from the end, I put it down. I don’t really consider it a DNF, but at ten pages from the end, there is at least one question about whether a major character is alive or dead, and I find that I didn’t care.
Breaking Point reads like it wants to be a British TV thriller. There is a part set in GeneCrime, the Metro crime lab a la CSI, with stereotypical characters sitting in meetings, leaving work early to talk with friends, going out to pubs for retirements, wakes and a assortment of social obligations. There is a part set with Maitland and his fat partner, and I call him that because that is the only character trait Macken really gives us about him. Maitland used to run GeneCrime but his hubris and his drug use caught up with him. Now he is pursuing his DNA theory, while two GeneCrime employees slip him DNA samples.
GeneCrime is chasing a elusive killer who is poisoning people on the London underground. Maitland, meanwhile, discovers that someone has targeted men who have the “bad genotype” and is threatening them; beating them up, following them, threatening their families. Clearly this is being done to elevate their stress, with a goal of tipping them over into violence. Why? It’s pretty clear why, and that means it becomes pretty clear who quite early in the book.
Macken makes a connection between the two criminal storylines. It seems rather forced. The underground killer doesn’t fit the profile of psychopathic killers as they are described elsewhere in the book, but at the end the two separate mysteries are jammed together with an awkward denouement.
This is the second book in a series, apparently, and while Macken, a former forensics technician himself, knows his way around the scientific method, his writing still needs to grow. Action sequences have point of view glitches, dialogue is stilted and expository, and once in awhile he uses baffling constructions, like, “his genetically imbalanced mind.” I know what he’s going for there, or at least I think I do, but constant niggles like this make it difficult to fall into the text.
I really do think some of my disappointment in the book is cultural. Brits don’t feel that they have a right to privacy. Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) is everywhere in London, apparently, and one of the weaknesses in Breaking Point is how much the GeneCrime team spends staring at CCTV images from the underground. The Blooding, a true-crine book by Joseph Wambaugh, addresses a famous serial killer case in Britain that was solved by the use of DNA, and law enforcement bascially asked every man in the country to voluntarily supply DNA samples. It is amazing how many of them did.
That said, the least believable thing here is that private citizen Maitland and his partner would drive around London seeking out the “bad genotype” guys and reasoning with them. And the” bad genotype” people put up with it!
This was a bookstore-closing sale book, so my disappointment is tempered by fact that I only paid two dollars for it. I think Macken has interesting ideas. I think he is falling short in his execution. It’s possible that he is going to improve, or already has, but I won’t be reading more to find out.