The locked room is a TV studio, a live audience, and millions of people watching at home. The mystery is whether Sam Midford pulled out a gun and shot himself on camera entirely of his own volition, or whether there is a more threatening plot behind why he pulled the trigger. That’s the idea of Benjamin Stevenson’s slow-burning thriller Either Side of Midnight, which works on the premise of whether you’d ever read the grisly story of Christine Chubbuck and thought it had the makings of a great whodunit.
I think Stevenson obviously has. He somewhat crassly uses Chubbuck’s haunting last words as one of his book’s many epigraphs as well as details about other certain true crimes such as the Conrad Roy case, and even has his characters at one point bring up and discuss the rise in teen suicides following the premiere of 13 Reasons Why to boot.
You begin to realise when reading these that Benjamin Stevenson is either relishing in his exploitation of real-life tragedies for the shock value of his story, or else has more a sociological purpose in mind than just writing another commercial mystery-thriller with a ‘ripped from the headlines’ hook. I suppose the question leans toward the latter for me, depending on the way you read this book and what you take away from it. The body count in Either Side of Midnight, I thought, is not something that simply drives the plot forward but is used as a serious topic of how we engage with mass-media in such toxic swells of social culture as these. And if that’s something you don’t think about, then it’s something this author definitely wants you to.
Unlike the real Christine Chubbuck, Stevenson’s fictional victim Sam Midford is not an obscure local TV news anchor but rather the beloved celebrity host of a national late-night entertainment programme (The Project by way of John Oliver was my obvious analogue). His on-camera death is a shocking tragedy to the nation, until, at least, child pornography is found on his computer soon afterward and he is soon written off by a public eager to move onto the next national cataclysm.
But Sam’s twin brother Harry isn’t as convinced. Harry knew his brother, and knows that the incriminating materials had to have been planted after the fact by someone wanting to make Sam’s death look natural—and, more importantly, that the same someone must somehow have managed their way into the studio on that fateful night to be able to push him over the edge.
To prove it, Harry turns to Jack Quick, a former tabloid producer and protagonist of Stevenson’s debut novel Green Light, who is soon to be released from prison for his part in an investigative report that ended badly. Harry offers an irrefutable deal: Jack helps prove that Sam’s death wasn’t truly a suicide, and in return he’ll be granted clearance to use the material to make into a comeback podcast. Jack may not believe Harry’s conspiracy theory at first, but it doesn’t matter to him: a great story is a great story.
It’s an entertaining twist on the detective novel formula (just imagine Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer with an iPhone recorder in their hands and you can imagine the way Quick guides us through the narrative) but it still speaks to Stevenson’s fascination with the macabre culture of contemporary media consumption we let ourselves luxuriate in. We can only be so stunned by every new worldly tragedy before we realise that half the podcasts we listen to, the Netflix docu-dramas we binge, the callout exposés we skim, are all of the same ghastly calibre to feed our endless appetite for ordered horror.
In this way, as skillful as he is at weaving social commentary into his well-constructed plot, Stevenson does to me seem to become too enraptured by his sense of social righteousness within the world he writes about. This becomes a problem especially when the latter-stages of the plot shift from television culture and begin indicting the world of texting and social media as well, and where one entirely superfluous scene of Quick searching and reciting to himself an entire page of real-life cases of internet-related deaths threatens even to turn the author into a kind of technological moralist.
Jack Quick is a good character, too—authoritative, resourceful, funny—but I found him to be too overdeveloped as a protagonist. He’s not just a dogged truth-seeker who’s working to correct the slander of his past, but also struggles with the decision of whether or not to cut the lifeline of his comatose brother, as well as possessing an eating disorder that is strangely only brought up a few times and never has any real impact on his character arc or the plot at large (though, to be fair, I presume this aspect has more relevance in the preceding book, which I haven’t read). To me, an obvious solution to this character problem would have been to make Harry the protagonist, which might also have strengthened the familial-bond element of the plot which comes off as one of its weaker parts.
But Stevenson’s heart is generally in the right place, and his writing skills are, too. As thematically probing as this novel can be read, it never really becomes too heady or overly polemical if you don’t wish it to be. This is craftful entertainment first and foremost, and it works very well as one with its brisk, page-turning plotting and bone-clean style. Stevenson’s author bio exalts that he is not just a writer but a standup comedian as well, and his wry sense of humour is often woven prudently into the prose (which is usually well done but not all the time successful—a line like “His teeth were like American Republican voters: white and straight” is of the kind that does not inspire a laugh as much as it does the absolute lightest chuckle of acknowledgment).
The story itself dipped for me in the second half, where the setting shifts from metropolitan Sydney to a small coastal town from Sam and Harry’s past, and where the narrative introduces the new element of a mysterious family tragedy from years ago that might have a connection to Sam’s own death. The plot is still engaging enough but begins to throw in too many new details and red herrings in an attempt to throw the reader off what becomes actually a pretty simplistic conspiracy. Not that I mind complex plots, but the tonal shift in narrative purpose is noticeable nonetheless in its sudden jump to becoming another small-town-with-big-secrets mystery. It’s as if Stevenson loses confidence in his own approach and takes on something akin to Jane Harper’s to keep himself on track.
Speaking of Jane Harper, Either Side of Midnight belongs squarely to what I guess I’ve read enough of to be able to call the New Wave of Australian Social Thrillers. When these books are good, they can be breakneck action-packed stories with thoughtful and well-balanced social critique that give them a longer-than-usual shelf life (Candice Fox). When they’re not, they come off often as by-the-numbers melodramas written to a kind of mathematical formula and with a bare minimum of prose style that asks little of the reader beyond that of just comprehension (Christian White).
But Stevenson’s book ends up somewhere in the middle for me—it has a unique hook, great writing, but nonetheless falls into the trap of its own genre and ends up becoming something of a tool of plot machinations that the author seems to feel all need to have deep relevance. A twist about Sam having communicated for years on-air by finger-tapping Morse code is probably the most groan-inducing of these, though the ending is also particularly egregious in this regard with one character suddenly having the over-the-top deviousness of a cartoon supervillain in their scheme to do away with the protagonist.
The mystery itself goes around in enough circles of convolution by the time it’s ready to be revealed that it becomes a finale you can probably see coming if you have both eyes open and are looking toward the places that Stevenson signposts with neon brightness. But it’s an ending that I think still works for the book it is, and which still emphasises the fact that in Stevenson’s world the corpses aren’t rotting in the dust—they’re in the pixels.
Jack Bell is a recent creative writing graduate and former editor of QUT’s ScratchThat magazine. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @quirkycynic
Note: The book featured in this review was provided to Glass and Jack Bell free of charge by Penguin Random House as a press copy. However, the opinions of the reviewer are their own.