A Mind To Kill: A dark psychological thriller packed with suspense

by John Nicholl


In A Mind to Kill we meet Rebecca Smith who, at the age of six, was molested by a serial child molester. The police, represented by Gareth Gravel (“Grav”) could do nothing to help. Fast forward 17 years and we find Grav, now DS Gravel, forced to take leave to cope with the loss by suicide of his friend and colleague. Grav isn’t doing well. He is angry, drinking too much, and alienating everyone around him, including his only son. Rebecca has isolated herself and set herself up as an avenging angel, targeting and killing child molesters.

When a bag of body parts is found, Grav is brought back from vacation and put in charge of the case. When he learns who the killer is, he is faced with another difficult decision: to prosecute Rebecca as a criminal or to see her hospitalized as a mentally ill victim.

Theme of the Book

How do different people respond to traumatic situations? In A Mind to Kill we have two very different responses, but both lead to disrupted lives. Here we learn to feel some sympathy for a serial killer because of her traumatic past.

What I liked about the story

Neither Gareth Gravel nor Rebecca Smith is typical of the characters we usually find in the serial killer/police office genre. Mr. Nicholl has managed to walk a fine line in this book by giving us two damaged characters who evoke both sympathy and hostility.

DS Gravel is portrayed as an ‘old school’ officer who does not willingly express emotion, hiding his feelings behind jokes. We do know that he has suffered emotionally by the suicide of his friend and colleague. For this, the reader can offer sympathy. However, he is not a likeable character. He drinks too much and manages to alienate the people closest to him.

It is impossible not to feel sympathy for Rebecca and for her suffering. Molested as a child, Rebecca seems to have had no counseling or psychological therapy and is unable to let go of the past, despite her mother’s pleadings. She is determined to save other children from the suffering she went through. This is admirable. It is her method that is not. Rebecca has become obsessed with finding and punishing pedophiles. Mr. Nicholl underlines her obsession with his repetition of words and phrases: “tip tap” when she is on the computer; “Come into my parlor said the spider to the fly” as she is enticing her victims to her house.

The chapters alternate between Rebecca’s and Gravel’s stories. This gives the reader a chance to see more deeply into each character.

What I didn’t like about the story

Firstly, some readers may find the graphic descriptions of Rebecca in her “killing room” disturbing. The scenes are, indeed, graphic and the coldness with which Rebecca tortures and kills her victims is hard to take. But readers should keep in mind that Rebecca’s is a damaged mind and understand that these scenes are not gratuitous but are essential to the development of the character.

Secondly, it took until the middle of the book for the plot lines of the two characters, Rebecca and DS Gravel to come together into one unified story. I became a bit impatient waiting for DS Gravel to end his vacation and come to grips with the crimes. Although the long set-up and descriptions of Gravel’s character underline the changes he suffers as a result of his traumatic experience (the suicide of a friend and colleague), I think this could have been handled in a more concise way, allowing the reader to get on with the story.

Final say

This book had an odd effect on me. At first, I didn’t like it much because it seemed to be just another serial killer and cop plot. It wasn’t until after I had finished it that I realized I couldn’t stop thinking about it. A Mind to Kill is dark, complex, and very worth reading.

This is definitely not a ‘cozy mystery’. In fact, there is no mystery here either about who the killer is or why she kills. Readers looking for a puzzle would be well-advised to choose another book. This is a dark psychological study of the effects of traumatic experiences on the human mind. It is disturbing in places, especially in the scenes in Rebecca’s “killing room” but if readers can manage to get through those scenes, they will find a complex and rewarding book.

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