Pity the humble book reviewer. The trick, see, is to summarize a preposterous concoction like Karen Hall’s Dark Debts — which has been optioned by Paramount — in a credible way, without giving away too much of the story. In this case, the task involves explaining how the following lines from the book’s next-to-last chapter came to be written: ”Randa sighed…any woman in her right mind would probably ditch a guy for killing a half dozen people. But Randa wasn’t afraid of him in the least.”
Now Randa, she’s been in love with some losers in her time: ”narcissists, commitment-phobes, liars, cheaters, you-name-it-aholics.” But never a psychotic murderer. ”I can’t believe this. I’m standing here hoping the man I’m in love with is demonically possessed,” she says at one point.
But is Jack Murphy really under the spell of an ancient familial curse, one that doomed his father and three brothers to homicidal madness? Or is he just a bad seed? That’s what Randa, a reporter for an alternative newspaper in L.A., has to decide. She’s journeyed back to her native Georgia to inform Jack of the mysterious suicide of his younger brother Cameron, who was not only a famous novelist but her lover as well.
Before long Randa finds herself attracted to Jack, but no sooner do they pair off than Jack begins to experience what a psychiatrist would describe as the classic symptoms of acute paranoid schizophrenia — hallucinations, command voices, etc. — before embarking on a killing spree. Enter Father Michael. The hunky Jesuit (who ”Randa hoped was gay…otherwise it was a crime against all of female humanity that this man had taken a vow of celibacy”) has been exiled to the boondocks for daring to write a New Yorker article on demons. And unbeknownst even to himself, the priest — who just happens to be a crackerjack exorcist — has a mystical connection to the unfortunate Jack. Father Michael is ”not a big fan of rules,” but a regular conversant nonetheless with a party known as ”the guy in the flannel shirt,” a.k.a. Jesus Christ. See, Dark Debts isn’t your average Cosmo-gal-meets-the-Dark Ages thriller about demons, priests, and exorcisms. It also masquerades as a deeply insightful inquiry into the existence of evil and the nature of faith. And that’s what pushes it over the line from merely ludicrous into downright offensive.
A longtime writer for M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and Moonlighting, Hall goes so far as to dedicate her first novel to the aforementioned ”guy in the flannel shirt” (who even appears as a character, wearing blue jeans and work boots, with ”shoulder-length hair that was reddish gold and slightly windblown”). Cleverly narrated, with lots of fire and brimstone, terrible carnage, terrific sex, and witty, sitcom-style dialogue, Dark Debts is nothing but blasphemous twaddle from beginning to end. C-