Classic Review: Act of Love
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Joe R Lansdale is probably better known for his crime themed thrillers than his work as a horror writer, and with good reason, his fast paced and energetic style of writing work perfectly for those kinds of adventures. When that same energy is applied to darker subject matter the experience is entirely different. That dynamism is twisted in his very first novel, Act of Love.
The genre of horror is always a tricky one to pin down, I usually go by the rule that if a book was written for the purpose of causing fear then it is a horror book. Act of Love certainly fits the bill. Written in the early eighties, before the genre could codify, Act of Love is one of the earliest examples of the serial killer novel. It was written with the clear intention of creating a hard-boiled detective novel but the visceral details push it over the line into pure horror.
The story is written from multiple perspectives, both from the point of view of the investigating police and from the serial killer himself. In the alternating sections, the dream-like quality of the killer’s psychosis and the growing fury contained in the heroic investigators colours the writing, both sides gradually distorting reality as the brutality of the crimes grow. In contrast to this distortion are the things that strike me the most about Act of Love. The level of reality captured in the writing.
I read a fair amount of true crime books in research for my own mystery stories and that is the closest to the reality of a murder investigation that I have ever seen in fiction. Generally speaking, the slow grind through evidence and the vague hope that the killer will make a mistake does not make for particularly engaging reading but by combining those elements with the internal struggles of the characters we are left with a book with a solid emotional backbone as well as moments of harsh excitement.
The other side of this veneer of reality is the language used by the characters. Because of the time period and the characters involved there is liberal use of a racial slur that editorial standards for this website will not even allow me to type for the purposes of discussion. It is used repeatedly by both heroic and antagonistic characters and in a rare move for a white writer in the 80s there is actually some examination of how the characters feel about using that word and having others use it. Interestingly, one of the police characters who happily spits it out on a daily basis becomes uncomfortable when it is applied to one of his superior officers who he has respect for. A page before one of the hero’s white friends uses it as a term of endearment in the midst of some jovial banter.
These reflections on race do not have the depth that you could expect from a writer of colour but for a white crime writer in the early 80s that level of self-examination is practically miraculous.
Act of Love is a cleverly written and engaging crime horror story from one of the masters of that genre niche, it does things that had never been attempted before and that have since been more or less abandoned and while the twist in the tale is thoroughly foreshadowed it still plays out in a satisfying way.