There’s a new serial killer with an unusual MO stalking Hollywood: no one with a personalised number plate on his car is safe. The psychopath’s name is Curt Knudsen and he’s known to the public as the Vanity Plate Killer. His name is no secret to the reader, because this is no mystery story. Author Henry Baum likes to take you right inside the head of your killer, putting his life and his motivations in full view. But this is not only the tale of a serial killer. It’s a shifting-perspective novel that lets you see the thoughts and feelings of several very different and flawed individuals: a detective, a paparazzi photographer, a producer, and principally, top Hollywood actor Michael Sennet. Michael and the killer become inextricably linked, due to an unfortunate incident. A paparazzi photographer captures Michael’s infidelity on camera and tries to bribe the actor. Michael, in a fit of rage, clobbers the photographer to death. To cover his tracks, he dresses the scene to make it look as if the Vanity Plate Killer commited the crime. But Curt Knudsen isn’t too happy about having his image tarnished by a copycat. However, if you think the rest of the novel is about Curt out for Michael’s blood, think again. There are far more complex issues going on in the killer’s head. The story also has an amusing and insightful satirical side, poking fun at our tendency to become starstruck when encountering celebrities – celebrities who may well be immoral behind all the glitz and glam.
North of Sunset is very well written. The style is snappy and polished, a rare find in a self-published novel. The author also pulls off two very tricky things of note. The first is his decision to write a story about bad people. When you learn about how to tell a story effectively, they tell you to make the reader sympathise with the protagonist(s). Well, there’s not much to sympathise with here. Even the characters who aren’t killers are still wrapped up in their materialism, greed and adultery. And yet the novel remains a page-turner. Secondly, the author indulges in talking us through a lot of each character’s backstory. It’s usually better to reveal a character’s nature through his present actions in the story rather than communicating it through lengthy passages of exposition about the character’s past. And yet there’s no denying that Henry Baum is able to do just that and make it all very interesting. The author is involved in the Hollywood movie industry and rubs shoulders with the sort of people he’s writing about. The writing definitely carries an air of realism. As an author myself, but with a different background, I know I couldn’t handle the same material as Baum.
The only disappointment I found in the novel (and this is purely personal) is that I rather liked old Detective Harry Stein. He was the one character with a bit of moral backbone, and he seemed a little underused in the story. I would have liked to have seen him get a bigger slice of the action.
Nevertheless, North of Sunset is a very good thiller, both insightful and inventive. A worthy read for those who like crime fiction.