“The Night Bird” is a psychological thriller about a killer who uses the phobia therapy of a prominent psychiatrist in San Francisco to terrorize said doctor by having her patients randomly commit suicide. Except it’s not really suicide because the Night Bird uses their fears and phobias to make them think that the thing they are most scared of in the world has come for them and the only way to escape is by killing themselves. It’s pretty messed up, going through someone’s mind and memories to torment them like that… The whole book feels like if the classic Dick Tracy noir detective and the movie “Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind” had a baby in 2016. The book is steeped in the ethical questions of whether it’s right or wrong to tamper with someone’s memories. Even if it helps remove a phobia that gives them a better quality of life, is it still the right thing to do? Evil psycho killer aside. The drama, the horror-like feel of the antagonist, and the fast paced cadence of this novel was really what saved it considering that most of the characters felt flat/one dimensional even with a tragic backstory, made frustratingly bad choices, and I simply did not like one of the main characters. Here’s why:
There’s really 2.5 main characters in this book. Even though this is supposed to be the first in a series of Frost Eaton books- he’s the detective who inherited a massive house by adopting a murder victims cat (yes, that’s a thing) takes a back seat to Frankie Stein (yes, he did that), the psychiatrist who’s memory therapies are aimed at helping people with extreme phobias lead normal lives by changing the way they remember the traumatic experience that birthed the phobia in the first place. We see and get so much more of Frankie (short for Francesca) and her troubles and feelings and backstory, that Frost just falls a bit flat. Even with his cat Shack who he randomly takes to crime scenes like a dog, except the cat just stays in the car so really, why did you bring your cat, Frost? I get it, it’s cute and kind of funny in a random way, but it was so NOT what would happen or how a real detective would behave that I found it distracting.
Anyway, back to Frankie. I really did enjoy the ethical debate that swims around Frankie as the Night Bird torments her, using her own methods for nefarious purposes. But Frankie just made me so mad most of the time. She’s kind of like that awful person in any B horror movie that decides to wander through the murder house alone, in the dark, and you’re screaming at her the whole time: “why would you do that? You know that’s a bad idea. Oh my god, you are supposed to be smarter than this!” Honestly, there were several moments where I felt that way and several more moments where I disliked Frankie’s husband and sister so much that it made rooting for Frankie all the harder. Honestly, her family is awful. Which is the point because it’s supposed to make her a complicated character, but I was just annoyed by her sister so much that I wouldn’t have been sad if the Night Bird chose her as a victim.
Frost has a messed up backstory too, he became a detective because of the murder of his sister. But they never go into that in terms of trying to solve that case or find her killer. There are a few crime drama novels that I love, basically anything by Robert Dugoni, and his main character detective has a similar backstory. Her sister is murdered and it inspires her to become a detective. The first book in that series is all about that murder and finding her killer. It does a fabulous job introducing you to Tracy and showing the reader why she is the way she is. All of that is left out for Frost. It’s mentioned but not really there. Instead, you just know he’s a good looking detective that all the ladies like. Freeman takes every single opportunity he can from multiple perspectives to remind you that Frost is apparently sexy. And he has a cat. I was missing the research, the realism that comes with his job, but it’s never there and this book could have really used it because Frost is a terrible detective otherwise.
All of Freeman’s characters feel like a stereotype. All the women are sexualized and even the smart ones come off as pretty dumb. Everyone makes so many obviously bad decisions that it just starts piling up and getting in the way. The book has some interesting and creepy elements with just enough twists to where, even though you can see the end coming, it’s still enjoyable. But the characters are where it falls apart, so much of what these people do is so implausible that it was hard to really feel an emotional connection or attachment to anyone. I get that it’s fiction, but I wanted it to feel real and it never did.
With how the story ended and how annoyed I was by all the dumb decisions the characters made in the book, I don’t think I care enough about Frost Eaton to see what kind of adventure he has next in San Francisco. Which is a shame, because this mystery/thriller had so much potential! But the writing was alienating due to its overly male-eye and so frustrating that even with a cool mystery, I can’t give it more than 2 stars.