As I sat down to write this review, I was more aware than usual of how easy it would be to include spoilers. I re-read the flyleaf synopsis and a variety of quotes about the book from other authors and, because none of them mention a particular key plot element, I was tempted to follow suit and avoid mentioning it too. The catch is that it would be nigh on impossible to provide a review of any substance without mentioning it, so I'm going to bite the bullet and do just that.
Before I do, I'll explain that Christopher Buehlman clearly loves reveals. He sets a scene and spends as much effort in not including things as he does in including others. He's planning ahead, waiting to reveal crucial details about that scene in the next chapter or a hundred pages on. Those reveals continue throughout the book, which often makes it feel like a presentation or even a magic show rather than a novel. So, if you want to experience those reveals as Buehlman intends, you should stop reading this review right now and only come back once you've read the book.
Now, if you're still reading, I'm still going to avoid spoilers but I will tell you that this is a vampire novel. It doesn't look like one at first glance, even with the word 'vampires' right there on page 9, because we're at the tail end of the sixties and the Suicide Motor Club of the title appear to be a group of serial killers who get their kicks nudging unsuspecting drivers off the highways of America at speed to burn up in the mangled wrecks of their vehicles. That's a decent idea, taking the rebel stylings of James Dean, adding the fetishism of J. G. Ballard's 'Crash' and placing it all within the thriller mindset and careful approach of, say, a Thomas Harris.
But that's not what this book is. The closest comparison I could conjure up is to Kathryn Bigelow's late eighties movie, 'Near Dark'. These are not high class vampires, ages old and reeking with the centuries, swanning around the opera and the symphony. They're just upstarts;, perpetually young, through their condition as what Buehlman calls 'nocturnals', but they haven't grown up yet either. When a centuried vampire shows up later in the novel, the difference between him and the others is palpable, obvious not only through his more exact speech but through his maturity and moral code.
And we only gradually, through Buehlman's carefully timed reveals, learn what they are. He lets us in on the secret slowly, as we gradually realise that the blurred teeth and convincing charm have meaning. It's this sort of thing that I warned you about at the start of this review, so don't complain! My notes include early questions about whether there was a supernatural element in play, because it remains only hinted at for the longest time. For seventy or eighty pages, they're not vampires, they're merely killers.
This rogue band of misfits roam the highways of America, which are seen as iconic even when they aren't Route 66, hunting for prey. They find some in the very first chapter, ploughing into the '65 Falcon of the well-named Lambs on I-40, killing the driver, Rob Lamb, leaving his wife Judith for dead and stealing their little boy, Glendon, through a side window, then vanishing into the darkness on the road to Albuquerque. It was a wrong turn indeed.
Oddly, we promptly follow Judith rather than the killers. Buehlman knows how he wants his story to run and he explores his characters in a very particular order. It's Judith first, as a victim, then the killers who quite literally wreck her life, before returning to Judith as she starts a new one as Sister Clare, postulant nun at Our Lady of the Gleaning monastery. Of course, there's a reason to keep focused on her but that way lie the spoilers that I'm not going to get into. I'll just say that this gets as grindhouse as you can imagine, as the plot strands merge and we explore the veins of America in the company of nuns, vampires and high-octane muscle cars.
For an author who took great care over how he structured this novel, the tone does change oddly. There are scenes of sheer detail, some chapters descending into minutiae. Others, however, veer more towards abstract experimentation. Some scenes are carefully deconstructed and explored from multiple angles to capture everyone's point of view, while others expound background detail through page after page of nothing but dialogue. There's one part that delves into philosophy, though that angle isn't pursued too far in favour of other approaches. We jump perspective rather inconsistently too. Some parts of the book remain focused on one person relentlessly, delving deep, while others bounce back and forth quickly enough that we sometimes get a little lost and have to re-read a page to be sure of who the focus is now on.
I enjoyed 'The Suicide Motor Club', though it wasn't much like I expected it to be and it was impossible not to feel manipulated as a reader because Buehlman kept firm control over both us and his characters. As free as they seem, hurtling around the country, they never get out from under his thumb. This works for most of the book, but a few parts feel a little forced, as if the characters wanted to go in a different direction but Buehlman wouldn't let them because they were acting out his story, dammit, rather than their own.
The novel does wrap up nicely, though, and it was refreshing to close a book with the feeling that it was truly done. There is an opportunity for Buehlman to return to this world, but the feeling is that he has no wish to do so. He crafted a world, populated it with creatures and set them at each other through the concept of retribution, both personal and divine. But, having done so, it's over. Our story is told and there's no need to return in a year for a further one. I'm sure Buehlman has other stories to tell and he'll move on to them. I think I will too. ~~ Hal C F Astell