Set in Cape Town, Like Clockwork follows the life and thoughts of Dr Clare Hart, a multi-talented author, profiler, and TV programme maker (who never cooks her own meals) – as she becomes involved in the murders of young teenagers. The basic plot of this debut novel is pretty standard: someone is abducting very young women and teenagers, killing them in sadistic ways, leaving their bodies ritually arranged among discarded rubbish. Clare lives in the same neighbourhood, but behind security gates in the affluent part of it. She’s a consultant to the police in the person of her on-off lover Inspector Riedwaan, so has both an insider’s view of the murders as well as an outsider’s, in that she often stumbles across relevant facts and suspects as she goes about her daily life.
We are gradually introduced to Clare’s world – her two sisters Julie, a wife and mother; and Constance, Clare’s twin, who has been institutionalised since she was viciously attacked many years ago. Clare and Constance share an uneasy yet passionate bond, as Clare bears the burden of guilt for what happened to her sister.
We are also introduced to several unsavoury characters: rich local businessmen who are cashing in on the sex trade and property boom. One of the most threatening of these is Kelvin Landsmann, who Clare wants to interview for a TV programme she is making about international trafficking of women. Clare’s life is filled with preparing her TV documentary, helping the police in the murder investigation, and supporting the various abused girls and their distraught families – as well as spending time with her sisters and an old neighbour. Increasingly, she becomes aware of the way in which girls are being abused as “hostesses” in the local tourism and erotic movie business, as well as forced prostitution from other parts of the continent and beyond, and how this abuse has spread into threats and crimes against the girls’ families.
Like Clockwork is a debut novel, and although I quite enjoyed it, I found it rather formulaic. I cannot empathise with the fascination of some authors with ritualistic, serial killers, and here the perpetrators are so obvious that there is little suspense to offset the many grim circumstances. I never feel comfortable reading books describing young women’s (or anyone’s) suffering, and this one is no exception, though it is not too explicit, thankfully – although it paints an extremely depressing picture of the typical 16-year-old’s family life and what happens to her if she is foolhardy enough to go into bars or take a part-time job doing voice-overs.
Although the novel has promise, I feel it tries to cover too many themes, so is a bit of a hodge-podge. For example, the police investigation is somewhat sketchily described; the relationship between Clare and Constance is not fully developed; and the varied professional activities of Clare mostly happen off-page, making her into a slightly implausible superwoman who has the right phone number to hand for any victim of any circumstance, so she can immediately head off to the next crisis. Although there are too many fragmentary elements, particularly to her back-story, she’s an attractive and capable protagonist. I think that in future, if the author focuses more and creates a better central story, Clare Hart could definitely make her mark.
There are two subsequent novels about her so far, Blood Rose and Daddy’s Girl – though I have not yet decided if I am going to read them because of the subject matter of sexual abuse and death of young women and (in later books) children. At the end of the day, I just did not find that this novel was sufficiently original, insightful or well-written to justify the voyeuristic, sickening subject matter – a conclusion I reached about the rather similar first two novels by Lee Weeks. I was also distracted by the poor editing and proofreading of the edition of Like Clockwork I read, even to the extent that the sentences in some paragraphs seemed to be out of order.