Imagine a version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train in which Robert Walker suddenly sprouts fangs, or Interview With the Vampire reconceived as a pungent, contemporary dark comedy, and you may begin to get an idea of the contradictory pleasures of David Martin’s new thriller Tap, Tap, a suspense/horror novel as peculiar as its title is evocative. Here’s the clever setup: 36-year-old Roscoe Bird (nice, bright, good guy) and his wife, Marianne (nice, bright, grad student in psychology), are interrupted at home one evening by a knock (tap, tap) at their door. Their caller: Peter Tummelier, ”a short and slightly built man under (a) ridiculous homburg hat (with a) mouth so small and delicate as to be girlish.” Their mistake: They invite him in.
Peter, it turns out, is a childhood friend of Roscoe’s who still seems to be nursing an unrequited crush on him and has come up with a unique plan to woo his old pal — he’s going to murder all of Roscoe’s enemies. In fact, he’s already begun; when Peter first comes a-tapping, on page one, the sound precedes the slaughter of a middle-aged couple who may have been responsible for Roscoe’s father’s suicide. Any allusions to Poe’s ”The Raven” are intentional; quoth Peter as he wipes his lips, ”Nevermore, motherf—er.” Peter is a vampire, or thinks he is, and if you think the story is getting complicated, wait until you meet the psycho genius who has escaped from a mental institution, not to mention Dondo, the two-foot-tall porcelain doll that has a mind and voice of its own, plus the taste for homicide that appears to be a requirement for admission to this novel’s cast of characters.
David Martin is trying to do a lot of different things in Tap, Tap, none of which will please readers who dislike seeing red blood and black humor splattered on the same palette. With a chilly, relentless style that invites both fascination and detachment, he keeps two stories at full boil, one an account of a decent guy trapped in a wrong-man scenario (yes, Roscoe will get in touch with his violent side by tale’s end), the other a portrait of a prissy, Eurosnob vampire trying to satisfy his appetites in a brutish world. And he leavens the narrative with twists that amount to very clever sick-jokes (one involves confusion over the word fillet; another is capped by the unspeakable-in-context punchline ”It’s something I ate”). Taste yardstick: If Pulp Fiction was not your cup of entrails, skip this one.
For those who can (and want to) stomach it, though, Tap, Tap offers a fable of revenge served up in cold, expertly gruesome prose. As Martin proved in his wholly original suspense novel Lie to Me, he can be a storyteller of malevolent skill; indeed, almost every chapter in the first third of Tap, Tap begins with a surprise — a shift in location, or mood, or narrative voice. And Martin’s witty, nasty take on vampire culture is far more entertaining than the sodden-velvet prose and self-entranced eroticism of Anne Rice novels. (He’s also generous with his blood-guzzling scenes; each victim is deftly drawn, then scratched out.)
What Martin can’t do is reconcile one side of Tap, Tap’s conceit with the other. A novel of psychological suspense depends on logic so ineradicable it becomes an ever-tightening screw. A horror novel relies on the spooky, the unpredictable, the unnatural. A novel that tries to do both winds up feeling like a cheat, a pitfall into which Martin stumbles whenever he interrupts Roscoe’s human-scale story for a big special-effects number involving Peter. (That porcelain doll isn’t his most brilliant moment either.) But it’s a tribute to the ruthless effectiveness of Tap, Tap that until its last page — which manages to be creepy, pathetic, and highly romantic — you hang in, hoping that everyone’s incisors will go back where they belong. B