March 05, 2015
(+++) CLEVER UNTO DEATH
The Black Widow. By Wendy Corsi Staub. Harper. $7.99.
Designed as a quick read with chills in all the appropriate places, Wendy Corsi Staub’s latest thriller delivers exactly what it promises, neither more nor less. Staub has a thing about predators in the age of the Internet, when everybody reveals everything about himself or herself online, and all that is revealed may be 100% false. Her latest twist on this overarching theme happens where the use of disinformation is particularly obvious: the focus is online dating sites, where men and women alike can massage their appearances, backgrounds, likes and dislikes in any way they want to – including, if they wish, their gender. In fact, the cleverest part of The Black Widow is Staub’s stylistic attempt at gender confusion in the first 50 or so pages, when she assiduously avoids using either male or female pronouns when writing about a character with a deliberately androgynous name. Unfortunately, her avoidance of this normal element of style quickly becomes so obvious that any sensitive reader will know what is going on, even if he or she is unsure just why it is going on and just where Staub is going with it.
But the point, of course, is that The Black Widow and the many, many books similar to it are not designed for or intended to be read by sensitive readers, or ones for whom literary style is any factor in enjoyment. Indeed, despite the attempted cleverness of the pronoun omission in the early pages – which leads to an additional series of twists later, most of which any reasonably attentive reader will see coming – the book’s title tells readers something about the gender of the serial killer at the heart of the story. Again, though, readers of this and similar books are not supposed to be even reasonably attentive to the plot machinations. The idea is to be swept along by the narrative into a completely safe place (one’s chair, bed, couch, or wherever one reads) that is nevertheless riddled with frights and filled with the fear that maybe this sort of thing has really happened and maybe – eek! – it could even happen to the reader if he or she has ever used an online dating site. Given the fact that so many readers surely have used such sites, The Black Widow is effective at upping the ante of their use, making it seem as if there are not only liars but also murderous predators lurking about at every twist and turn of the online-dating experience. Just what people trying to find love need – especially people nervous about the whole online approach in the first place.
Of course the protagonist is just such a person: Gaby Duran, recent divorcée and very reluctant participant in the online-dating scene. Gaby’s marriage disintegrated after her and her husband’s only child died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome – a horribly traumatic event in the real world and scarcely less so here, where Staub uses SIDS as a club to force Gaby into the modern dating world despite Gaby’s entirely understandable fear of reentering the dating pool – not to mention any situation of intimacy with a member of the opposite sex. As Gaby’s story develops, so does that of her ex-husband, Ben, who is also trying online dating – indeed, the first time Gaby signs onto her new dating account, she finds out that Ben is using the same (fictional) service. Inevitably but clunkily, after meeting unexpectedly online, the two exes also run into each other in the real world – a meeting important for plot purposes but, like many other elements of this coincidence-riddled novel, rather hard to swallow.
Also developing along with Gaby’s tale is the story of the methodical, diabolical, mentally unbalanced, driven-by-something-or-other serial killer whose sick fantasies (whose full extent Staub reveals only slowly) Gaby is sure to encounter, that being the nature of books like this. A child’s death or disappearance for any reason, The Black Widow suggests, is enough to make someone come unhinged – especially if the person has already shown signs of considerable instability, but even if things seemed to be within normal limits before the tragedy.
What Staub does that is interesting here is to weave a web in which it is unclear which strand leads to whom. In addition to the initial no-pronoun, gender-concealing strategy, Staub creates scenarios in which there is no way to know, at least at first, just who is the person he or she claims to be and who is hiding some sort of deep, dark, devious and deadly secret. Could the killer be the overly-nice-seeming man whom Gaby first dates after agreeing to try the whole Internet thing? Could it be Ben himself, even more destabilized by his child’s death and the breakup of his marriage than Gaby was, despite his seemingly more-accepting demeanor? Does the gender-confusion section mean that someone who seems to be a man, dressing and acting accordingly, may not be a man at all? The point of The Black Widow is, essentially, to fear and mistrust everybody, not just in online encounters but in real-world ones as well. Yes, this is a recipe for paranoia, and yes, anyone who takes the book seriously is likely to find himself or herself terrified of the online-dating scene, of dating in general, of relationships, of – well, of pretty much everything in the human condition that causes us to seek mates and sometimes, against what are admittedly very long odds, find good ones. Staub’s pacing, if scarcely flawless, is certainly headlong; her characters, if scarcely seeming like full human beings, are more interesting and more driven by often-believable (if often-overstated) motivations than are those in many similar genre books. Staub’s scenarios are just real enough to seem plausible, just twisted enough to seem scary, just frightening enough to have readers glancing over their shoulders in the dark of night or questioning their own feelings and motives while sitting across the table from a recently-met potential love interest. The Black Widow makes online dating, which for many people has become a necessary evil, into an outright evil, a fact that does neither the dating sites nor the people using them any good whatsoever. But doing good, to or for anyone, is scarcely the point here. What Staub wants to do, and not for the first time in her cyber-fear books, is to make the already scary world of the Information Age a little bit more frightening; and that she certainly accomplishes. Whether her success is a good or bad thing, each reader will have to decide.