As a general rule, I don’t care much for psychological thrillers. They move at too slow a pace to earn the moniker thriller for me. We see lots of things engineered to endear us to the protagonist, but the action is a bit glacial for my taste. Plus, so many of them seem built around a premise that makes me want to take the protagonist by the collar and shake them, yelling into their face, “Can’t you see what the f&@k, is going on?!”
The Perfect Victim starts out just that way. Mary Brock is a single mother of an eight-year-old named Michael. Her best friend Anne “buys” her a deputy sheriff at a charity auction. He’s a little over six feet tall, slim, has wavy blond hair, and goes by the name Billy Joe Wilkins. Billy Joe promises Mary the perfect date.
Almost immediately, though, ominous signs begin appearing. Billy Joe calls her every night at home, every day at work. This last is more problematical because she works at a credit union where most of the employees are single mothers like herself, and the credit union isn’t exactly the gem of employers. Personal calls are strictly forbidden.
Too, Billy Joe doesn’t seem to get that dating for a single mother is tough. She’s on a very limited budget—at the book’s beginning she’s wrestling with her son wanting Nike Airs while she has to decide which clothes she can afford to wash this week—and can’t just take off on a whim, as Billy Joe seems to want her to do.
As the book progresses, these signs from Billy Joe become even more ominous, and it is quickly evident that he’s a controlling, abusive, dangerous man who uses his authority as a law enforcement officer to give him personal advantages in his quest to, for all practical purposes, own Mary while getting her to get rid of her son, who he refers to as “the kid.”
And now we arrive at the point that frustrates me about psychological thrillers: why can’t the protagonist see what’s happening? For me, it’s like the old joke about slasher movies: if you’re alone, in the dark, and weird things have been happening, why in the world are you investigating that noise? Why are you going up those stairs? For that matter, why’d you come out here camping in the first place?
The difference in The Prefect Victim is this: Mary finds a dark spot in her that responds to Billy Joe’s domineering ways. She likes the rough sex, likes it when he takes control, bringing her to the point where she’s afraid for her life, then treating her as if she’s a china doll that’ll break at the lightest touch. It seems that, when he perceives he’s frightened her, he backs off, reassures her it’s all fun and games.
With every mercurial rise and fall of Billy Joe’s temperament, Mary finds herself riding the same pattern of crests and troughs, a small boat on a large and violent ocean. She sees the problems but finds herself helpless to change what’s happening. He’s a complete and total ass, but the sex is like nothing she’s ever experienced before and is afraid she never will again. Does that make her shallow? Or does it make her human, just like the rest of us?
If I go any farther, I risk revealing some spoilers, so let me wrap it up this way: by the time you reach the end of Pamela Foster’s The Perfect Victim, you may find yourself wondering what you’d do in a similar situation, and if you’d go down the same dark paths Mary finds herself having to follow.
Because, in the end, what makes us human and vulnerable also lets us win in some horrible situations.