Matt Wells is a crime-fiction author of two violent series of books: one, set in Jacobean times, features themes of revenge; the other is about the Albanian mafia, equally if not more violent. The Albanian series didn't sell well and the Jacobean books were criticised for lack of authenticity, so Matt has been dumped not only by his agent and publisher, but also by his wife, too fond of the high life to remain married to a loser, as she sees it.
When the book opens, Matt is settled in a mundane existence of taking and collecting his young daughter Lucy to and from school each day (he lives in a flat near his ex-wife's house), and spending the rest of his time sitting in front of a blank screen waiting vainly for inspiration to strike and dealing with the odd bit of fan mail via his author website.
Everything changes for Matt when he receives a fan email with a difference. "WD", or the "White Devil" as he comes to be called, sends Matt a series of emails revealing a disturbing amount of information about Matt's life and family. Far from being a besotted reader, WD is a psychopath who, by a combination of threats and blackmail, makes Matt write his biography. The life-story isn't a conventional one: WD sends Matt information about gruesome murders before they have occurred, and forces Matt to write them up as chapters in the biography. The victims are people who have hurt WD in the past – a priest, a teacher and so on – but the wicked twist is that they are dispatched by exactly the same methods as those described by Matt in his books. The Jacobean revenge theme adds distinctiveness to what otherwise might seem like a bit of a boilerplate novel.
Up to this point, THE DEATH LIST is a fast-paced thriller that asks some pertinent questions about the relationship between real-life and fictional crime. Matt's new girlfriend, Sara, is a journalist who is reporting on the crimes being committed by WD. "How can you write about this sort of thing for fun?" she shouts at Matt. He replies: "I suppose crime novels are a way of coming to terms with the violence of the world, a way of mediating between the reader and the abyss." "Bullshit" is her response, "They’re a way of making a quick buck by pandering to people’s worst instincts."
After this point, however, the book jumps the shark. WD has run out of people to murder from his own past, so he turns to people who Matt has reason to dislike: an agent, a publisher and so on. A trio of ex-SAS men, bent on revenge for a gangland murder of a friend, enter the scene: are they after WD or someone else? The police, led by DCI Karen Oaten, are always one step behind.
As Matt comes to fear for his own family, he decides to take matters into his own hands and track down WD himself. Conveniently, he turns out to have three or four old friends who are an expert computer hacker, an ex-paratrooper, and so on – you get the picture. The men race around London discovering essential clues about WD, his true identity, twisted deeds and evil plans – but always one step too late. Matt sometimes involves the police in his mission (for example, he gives them a list of people close to him that need protection), but at other times, inexplicably, he doesn't (such as when he discovers the likely real name of WD, and when he realises there are about 15 possible properties where WD might be holding Matt's family hostage or worse). Matt's need to have a macho showdown with WD becomes incredible as soon as Lucy, his daughter, is involved.
Although the plot is riddled with holes, the more so as the book progresses, the story is told with verve, the tension builds up nicely and the pace is hectic. Apart from Matt himself, the story takes precedence over the characterisation (and certainly the motivation of WD), so that one can't feel much sympathy for any of the rather wooden characters or be too concerned about the various revelations at the end. The final twist is not so much of a shock as the setting up of the promised sequel.