Book Review: Bad Man by Dathan Auerbach
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Doubleday (August 7, 2018)
Length: 400 pages
Is there anything more heart-wrenching than a tale about a child gone missing? For protagonist Ben, there is no deeper anguish. Five years ago, his little brother Eric disappeared from a grocery store while Ben was supposed to be taking care of him. A moment of distraction was all it took. One second, the three-year-old was there, and the next, he was gone. Search teams scoured the area and the police also looked into all suspects that could have taken the little boy, but nothing ever came of any of the investigations. Soon, Eric’s photo joined the dozens of other children on the missing persons bulletin board, where their faces gaze back faded and forgotten.
But Ben has never stopped looking. He is now twenty, and the years since Eric’s disappearance have not been kind to him or his family. His stepmother has retreated into herself and his dad’s job is no longer enough to pay the bills. Ben desperately needs work, but in a cruel twist of fate, the only place that would hire him is the very supermarket where Eric went missing. Working the nightshift as a stock person, Ben quickly learns the ropes from his new buddies Marty and Frank, and as hard as it is being back in a place with so many painful memories, for a while there, things didn’t actually seem so bad.
Unfortunately, that calm doesn’t last. After a couple weeks, Ben can’t shake the feeling that something is very wrong with the store, the people there, and the entire town. A disturbing find in the lost-and-found bin suddenly reignites his search for Eric, leading to another flurry of printed flyers and house-to-house calls. There’s no one left that Ben feels he can rely upon or trust—not his parents, not his colleagues, and most definitely not the police detective James Duchaine, the man who was put in charge of Eric’s case.
I was kind of torn on my feels for this book. For days, I wavered between rating it 3 or 4 stars before settling on something in the middle. There were certain things I really liked about it, but there were also areas that I felt were weak or fell short of my expectations.
First, the positives: there were moments in Bad Man that were truly terrifying. You don’t even have to look too far beyond reality to find the horror either; hundreds of kids go missing each year, and I can’t even imagine what an awful, desperate, and helpless ordeal it is for the parents and loved ones. This novel opens on the worst day of Ben’s life—the day he lost his beloved little brother. As a mother of a three-year-old, reading this entire sequence made my skin cold and my stomach feel hollow. Ben’s panic and guilt tore at my heart. His pain and fear became mine, and I felt like crying.
For better or worse though, I didn’t find the rest of the book to be so harrowing or intense, though the story still contained its fair share of emotionally traumatizing moments. In many ways, Bad Man is more mystery than horror. Dathan Auerbach handles suspense well, keeping the reader guessing even when not a lot is happening on the page. Most of his characters are there as suspects, their secrets revealed to us slowly as their backstories are told in dribs and drabs. Ben himself is an enigma that we are warned not to fully trust. Grief touches people in different ways, and the uncertainties surrounding our protagonist’s memories is a source of much tension and conflict.
Unfortunately, this compelling atmosphere was not always present. There were times when the author dropped the ball, particularly in sections where the plot meandered and dragged. Certain threads were also picked up but never carried through and I wasn’t always sure if these were supposed to be red herrings or just Auerbach trying out different twists that he didn’t quite know how to pull off. Because this is his debut novel, I’m sort of leaning towards the latter. There are definitely pacing issues, and I didn’t think the novel as a whole had to be so long. The rambling, convoluted jumble that was the ending probably could have used some polish too, for I got the sense that the author might have forgotten to tie up a few loose ends.
Overall, I liked Bad Man, but as a horror/mystery novel, there were things that could have been done better. Author Dathan Auerbach has already found much success with Penpal, a series of interconnected short stories posted to Reddit, but I think he’s probably discovered that a full-length novel requires a whole different level and process of planning and writing. If this debut is any indication though, I believe he’s on the right track, and I look forward to see what he does next.