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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Afraid to Death

Marc Behm

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To purchase Afraid to Death

Title: Afraid to Death
Author: Marc Behm
Genre: Novel
Written: (1991) (Eng. 2000)
Length: 183 pages
Availability: Afraid to Death - US
Afraid to Death - UK
Afraid to Death - Canada
Trouille - France
Todespoker - Deutschland
  • Though originally written in English, Afraid to Death was first published, in 1991, in a French translation, by Nathalie Godard, as Trouille; the English original was only published in 2000

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Our Assessment:

B+ : compelling fast-paced suspense

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Times . 1/7/2000 Steve Jelbert

  From the Reviews:
  • "Insanely evocative and extremely satisfying, it's at least as good as its predecessor." - Steve Jelbert, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Afraid to Death is the life-story of Joe Egan, a story dominated by a shadow that keeps him on his toes and, more often than not, on the run, year after year. He first encounters it when he is eleven. Its form is that of a woman, and its appearance consistent across the years:

She's blond. She has purple eyes. She dresses in mourning.
       She knows who he is when he first encounters her, but she doesn't have her sights set on him just yet, just asking him for directions to someone else's house. But it's far from the last time he sees her -- and he senses soon enough that she's a presence to best be avoided. He manages, from early on, to elude her -- usually: narrowly and just -- but that doesn't mean she doesn't leave her mark: those she seeks out in his stead, often near and dear to him, have a tendency to suddenly die. Whatever she is -- "It was the old eye-of-the-beholder principle. People just see what they see. And the beheld can take any form the eye devises" -- she is a deeply unnerving entity -- nothing less, it would seem, than an Angel of Death.
       Joe knows he has to avoid her. So what's a boy, and then man, to do ? As a priest he turns to early on observes: "you can't keep running away forever. There's no future in that". But Joe sees no alternative: that is his future. That is his entire life.
       For a while, it's enough to be on guard: "The years passed like andantes". He graduates from college. He moves to Raleigh, North Carolina, gets a job, and even marries a co-worker. And then, out of seeming nowhere, it's back -- as sinister and deadly as ever.
       Joe goes on the run, and for a while he's totally down and out. He's always been good at poker, however, and it's long been an outlet for him; it's a way he can earn a living too, he finds -- a reasonably comfortable one in fact, if he doesn't have to up and run away at yet another moment's notice, as he repeatedly does ..... His life -- every decision -- is a gamble, as he has to decide at a moment's notice whether to hold 'em or fold 'em, so it's entirely appropriate that even his primary means of making ends meet is to play games of chance (with that small bit of skill and natural ability that goes with it).
       Joe's need to find high-stakes poker games and other gambling opportunities puts him in the orbit of gamblers, and there are several who keep crossing his path over the years. As he eventually realizes, his acquaintances and habits can also lead the one he's trying to avoid right back to him -- a recurring problem. And while he's always on the lookout, and he has a nose for her -- a sense when she's nearby -- so does she.
       There are times of calm -- he shacks up with a medium named Iraq in Florida; he spends four years in a vacation cottage in New York -- but she, or it, always catches up with him. And even as Joe manages to stay a step or two ahead, bad things happen in his wake.
       Afraid to Death is fast-paced, every lull in Joe's life, a few moments or weeks or years that he can take it a bit easier, upended in little more than a heartbeat, chasing him away from any semblance of stability and forcing him to leave everything -- belongings as well as human ties -- behind. Behm mixes things up nicely, too, and even as readers know -- as Joe does, too ... -- that, inevitably, the Angel of Death will reappear, she does so completely unpredictably: Afraid to Death is the ultimate highest stakes (can't-escape-the-)stalker novel.
       Joe's personal relationships are obviously complicated by his sudden disappearances; surprisingly, there are some real and even somewhat lasting connections with others. The sex, and the sexual proclivities of some of those Joe encounters are, like much else in the novel, a bit over the top -- but as with everything in the novel, every scene and encounter is soon enough supplanted by the next, often completely different one.
       Part of what's so clever and effective about Afraid to Death is that it's not entirely breathless. Indeed, it's those moments -- pages, chapters -- of seeming calm that make Joe's precipitous plunges back on the run all the more gripping. There's the repeated sense of possible respite -- but it's never, never real. Because Joe does not live the way most people do or can, a predictable progression through the stations of life, time itself takes on a wholly different feeling -- beautifully captured by Behm throughout the novel:
     Another year. He refused to count them. They made no sense to him. They were like centuries or decades, too massive to contemplate. A calendar year was as incomprehensible as a heliographic chart. Only his days and nights mattered. One more morning, one more twilight, an infinity of moments. Time was an illusion.
       Behm handles the hokey supernatural element to the novel quite well -- by not exploring his premise of an Angel of Death too deeply. The only place it feels off is when he brings the medium into the story -- though she has other redeeming qualities that make this slight supernatural detour endurable. There are also a few coïncidences too many -- notably that he runs across the husband of one of his sometime acquaintances, far, far away from her -- but admittedly this does help heighten the tension further.
       Yes, Afraid to Death verges on the ridiculous, especially in its premise, but it's impressive in its relentlessness. Quick and vivid, and with some over-styled writing that's nevertheless fitting, this is a very good piece of suspense.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 October 2018

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Afraid to Death: Reviews: Marc Behm: Other books by Marc Behm under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author and screenwriter Marc Behm lived 1925 to 2007.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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