By Richie Tankersley Cusick.
There are pros and cons to Trish’s new job at the mall. On the plus side, she’s working near her best friends, twins Nita and Imogene. And from her vantage point at the counter of Muffin-Mania, she can sneak glances at sexy Storm Reynolds working across the food court at Pizza Park. On the downside, her manager Bethany is really mean, and there are persistent rumours of weird happenings in the mall at night, such as things – and people – vanishing without trace. Plus, there are some peculiar characters hanging about the place: a customer with sunglasses and wispy grey hair, who orders muffins in the creepiest way imaginable; abrasive bus-boy Wyatt, who Trish catches hanging round her car; and a mystery someone who lures Trish into the parking lot so he can call her on a payphone and whisper sinister things at her.
Late at night, Trish finds herself stranded in the abandoned carpark. When a security guard lets her back into the mall via a service door, she discovers the corpse of a girl with an ice-pick through her throat. The guard bundles Trish into a taxi so he can call the police without her having to become involved, but when she tries to track him down the next day to thank him, she’s told by another guard, Roger, that there is no night-time security at the mall. And there’s nothing on the news about a murder. The mysterious guard has disappeared… and so has the body.
When Trish is humiliated by Bethany in front of the entire food court, she decides she’s had all she can take from the mall. But before she can hand in her notice, Trish takes a tumble down a faulty escalator and ends up in hospital. In the middle of the night, she’s visited by her mystery harasser. Calling himself Athan, he tells her they are destined for each other, and will be together very soon. He threatens to harm her friends if she tells anyone about him. Forced to confront the danger she’s in, Trish reverses her decision to quit Muffin-Mania. She needs to get back into the mall to find her tormentor and put an end to his delusions, once and for all.
The Mall is a gripping read. A tightly narrated, action-packed story which keeps its focus on the mystery and makes few digressions into the minutiae of American teen life. Normally I can’t get enough of the PH page-padding tropes of beach parties, fast-food dates and school-based shenanigans. But The Mall compensates for its lack of nostalgic Americana with a tough, likeable heroine, interesting cast of peripheral characters, and relentless sense of peril. Not really a whodunit, as there are only two suspects (and neither of these turns out to be the stalker – I’ll come back to this in a moment) it nevertheless satisfies as an intriguing mystery. The narrative unravels a little towards the end, getting caught up in an overlong set piece involving a freight elevator. But when Trish finally stumbles into her tormentor’s lair, things get scary very quickly. With two corpses that we know of, and allusions to other murdered girls, there’s no doubt this guy means business, and Trish is in mortal danger.
There’s also a genuinely surprising twist when the perpetrator is unmasked, though I’d have preferred the person in question to have featured in the narrative a little more, and earlier, than he did. Still, the clues were there, so perhaps I’m just annoyed with myself for failing to guess who it was. The two actual suspects have a significant role to play in the finale, though they morph into a slightly ridiculous double-act with questionable sexual morals, and their presence is incongruous with the tense and highly fraught showdown.
If it wasn’t for a couple of odd choices in the last few chapters, The Mall would be faultless. As it is, this highly enjoyable and memorable entry still gets an almost-perfect score.
The Mall subjects its heroine to a frighteningly realistic ordeal, rather than relying on gross pranks or typical PH scare tactics. We follow Trish from the first encounter with her stalker – when he orders a honey muffin in his wispy-grey-beard disguise – through every threat and act of mental torture, until his nefarious intentions are revealed in the macabre finale. Along the way, there are some terrifying set pieces: the mutilated corpse in a bin; Athan’s visit to an incapacitated Trish in the hospital; and the discovery of his lair – complete with giant spiders, wedding cake and headless mannequins. Trish’s slapstick rescue, by the two characters she had pegged as villains, detracts a little from the horror in the finale, but we are nevertheless left with a delightfully sinister parting shot, and an unshakeable sense of unease.