In Thomas Tessier's new novel, "Finishing Touches," sexual sadomasochism is directly linked with literal cruelty and death. characters, "Death is the final thrill. The last, best confection." When Dr. Tom Sutherland, the novel's protagonist, asks Lina, another character, "Do you think all fantasies are sexual?" she replies: "The first wave, yes . . . And most people never get beyond the first wave."
With Lina and Nordhagen, a cosmetic surgeon who employs her as his secretary, Sutherland gets way beyond the first wave. Indeed, this is a chronicle of a man's descent into depravity. And for some readers the story may be more revolting than interesting, so appalling are the cruelty and the total disregard for human life.
The novel draws you in immediately. The tone is distinctly British, and somewhat old-fashioned, but extremely readable. Except for the thoroughly modern dialogue, it is reminiscent of Sheridan LeFanu at his best. (It is not surprising to find a direct reference to LeFanu by one of the characters.)
Sutherland, an American doctor on holiday in Britain, describes his gradual introduction by the older doctor Nordhagen and Lina into a sinister new life.
First there is a luxurious private club called the Feathers, where one can "own" a woman if one chooses; then there is Lina's otherworldly town house with its waterbed and various electronic toys. Kinky sex leads to death in a scene apparently set up for that purpose. Then there is the revelation of Nordhagen's secret chamber of horrors, and finally the partnership of Lina and Sutherland as they kill and torture people apparently at random.
The novel ends with Sutherland a serial murderer, a man morally destroyed. "I think all people are sociopathic, or most of them," he tells us in the final pages, "if only by omission or indifference. And what has happened to me -- it's as if there were another part of me that had been waiting all those years for this."
Throughout the style is excellent, the suspense good. Even when the characters' behavior is hard to believe -- Sutherland and Lina making love beside the body of a woman who has just been stabbed to death -- the book continues to hold you. Where is all this leading? Will the story finally transcend its graphic depictions of suffering and death?
But ultimately the book does not satisfy. It merely shocks. Sutherland's moral disintegration comes about far too easily to be thought-provoking. Lina, though mysterious to him, is never particularly mysterious to us. And though Sutherland insists that Nordhagen's secret cellar of tortured and helpless victims is consistent with the Nordhagen he has known from the beginning, readers may not agree.
The characters strain credibility too often. Sometimes their reactions are downright laughable. And the philosophy -- the talk of power, fantasy, references to real-life atrocities, the implication that anyone might have been drawn into this mess as easily as Sutherland -- all of this seems too simplistic finally to carry the weight of the ghastly scenes the author gives us along the way.
This is not to argue that a novel must have "redeeming social merit" to justify itself. But surely when a writer describes horrors as shocking as these, he has to give us something to make the experience seem worthwhile.
"Finishing Touches" doesn't do that. It's like an exquisitely photographed slasher movie. It leaves you with so little that it is artistically obscene.
But it should be noted here that author Ramsey Campbell is quoted on the jacket as saying that this is "one of the key horror novels of the eighties," and that Peter Straub (to whom the book is dedicated) and Stephen King have praised Tessier's work in the past. Tessier has published four other novels, as well as poetry and plays.
Perhaps other readers will respond more positively to "Finishing Touches." But then, maybe some of them will agree with me that this is a piece of beautifully written trash.