Publisher: Allen & Unwin Australia (Trade Paperback – 29 November 2022)
Series: Timothy Blake – Book Four
Length: 416 pages
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
One of Australia’s leading and most diabolical thriller writers, the exceedingly talented Jack Heath, returns with another twisted and immensely clever mystery, Headcase, which sees the return of his cannibalistic protagonist, Timothy Blake.
While Australia has quite a few outstanding crime fiction authors, Jack Heath is a particular favourite of mine. Coming from my hometown of Canberra, Heath has been writing for years, producing a range of different series and standalone novels. I have really enjoyed some of his recent books, including the 2021 standalone novel, Kill Your Brother, an ultra-intense and amazing five-star read that saw a young woman with a complex past forced to make a terrible decision: kill her imprisoned brother or die herself. This was one of my favourite Australian novels of 2021, and it is a must-read for anyone keen for a powerful and thrilling story. However, Heath is probably best known for his Timothy Blake books (also known as the Hangman series), which are particularly fun and gruesome. Following the titular Timothy Blake, a brilliant investigator with cannibalistic tendencies, this epic series are set around a unique but highly entertaining series of mysteries that really draw the reader in. I have had an amazing time with this series, including the third entry in the series, Hideout (one of my favourite Australian books of 2020), and I have been very excited to see how this series continues for a while. Heath did not disappoint as the fourth and latest entry in the series, Headcase, proved to be an exceptional and gripping read.
Following his previous harrowing adventure, which cost him his arm and burned all the trust he had with his former FBI partner, freelance investigator and full-time cannibal Timothy ‘Hangman’ Blake’s future seemed in doubt, until he was given an offer he couldn’t refuse. Recruited by a CIA agent nearly as insane as he is, Blake now works freelance for the agency, investigating odd occurrences throughout the country in exchange for occasionally being able to indulge in his cannibalistic habit.
His latest case sees him and his CIA partner, Zara, journey to Houston, where something unexplainable has occurred at the NASA training complex. A fully suited Chinese astronaut has been discovered on the grounds of the facility and no one can explain how he got there. Did he fall out of the sky, or was he murdered elsewhere and somehow dragged into the middle of a secure United States facility? As a diplomatic catastrophe seems imminent, Blake is drafted by the CIA to unofficially investigate one of the facility’s employees, a former kidnapper who Blake helped put away seven years ago, who may hold the secret of the dead astronaut.
As Blake starts digging, he uncovers a series of surprising and unusual clues that seemed design to confuse any investigation. The evidence seems to point to the victim falling out of a Chinese spacecraft surveilling the United States, however, all Blake’s investigative senses and knowledge of human flesh seem to tell him differently. But with Chinese hit squads following them, the CIA attempting to forestall their investigation, several suspicious individuals working in the facility attempting to misdirect him, and Blake’s own ravenous hunger driving him crazy, this case seems near impossible to solve. Can the Hangman crack the impossible one more time, or will he finally end up in the cage that he deserves?
Wow, I just cannot get over how good Jack Heath is an author as he produces another outstanding and captivating read with a diabolical story behind it. This amazing thriller has everything you need to enjoy yourself, including a clever mystery and some truly insane characters, and I absolutely powered through it trying to see how everything came together. This is an easy five-star read from me and I have already featured Headcase on my Top Australian Books of 2022 list a few weeks ago.
Headcase has a brilliant story to it that takes the reader on a very wild ride into some very gruesome murders. Told from the perspective of main character Timothy Blake, you are soon shown the compelling murder through the eyes of a crazed cannibal who is attempting to simultaneously solve a murder and please the CIA while not revealing that they are looking into the death and sate his own hunger for dead human flesh. Heath provides a great set-up to this entire story with the mysterious Chinese astronaut discovered in the centre of the NASA facility, which is a very good hook to drag the reader in. As Blake tries to investigate this case, the reader is treated to several flashback chapters to when Blake was working for the FBI and helped to put away one of the NASA technicians for kidnapping, a crime Blake never believed he committed. Heath also mixes things up by also including several chapters set a short while into the future in which Blake is incarcerated in a mental institution and is recounting the current story to his psychologist. This three-way split storyline works extremely well for the first half the book as all three timelines support the others extremely well, and the blend of different periods and focuses helps to create a very interesting read. The storyline focusing on the dead astronaut remains at the centre of the narrative, with the other two plotlines tying into it, and this is where the magic truly happens. Heath sets up a particularly interesting mystery around the dead astronaut, with the protagonist forced to dive through a ton of clues, overly dodgy suspects, and government secrets to try and get to the truth. At the same time, Blake and his partner find themselves under attack from several sources, such as Chinese hit squads, the police, a mysterious serial killer, and their own very dark inner demons.
The story advances at a quick clip the entire way through as the characters power through a range of deadly and dark scenarios. Heath loads up the clues and the complicated supporting characters and it proves very interesting to see Blake attempt to work out who may be responsible and their very complex motivations. Much of the story has a bit more of a spy thriller taste to it, thanks to Blake’s association with the CIA and this really helps to make Headcase standout a little from the previous Timothy Blake books. The NASA and Chinese space surveillance proves to be a very fascinating inclusion that Heath cleverly works into the plot, and I loved that the author was able to write a whole story about mysterious Chinese surveillance craft before the current balloon crisis. While these spy elements, which include brutal encounters with hit teams from various agencies, are a great new inclusion, some of the best parts of the book still revolve around the deeper character moments of the story, especially when it comes to the protagonist. I deeply enjoyed how Heath utilises his protagonist’s disturbing cannibalistic insights as an investigative tool, while other insights into his mind, especially when he is in a mental institution, increase the tension and make you wonder just how reliable a narrator Heath truly is.
Everything comes together perfectly in the second half, especially when Blake is desperately trying to solve everything, not only to get to the truth but to save lives. All the previous story elements are brought together in a big way, and it was outstanding how the clues that Heath had cleverly laid throughout the story came together. The time split perspectives are resolved in a great way, and it is a lot of fun to see how Blake ended up in the mental hospital. Everything leads up to several big reveals at the end of the book, not just surrounding the main murder, but other curious events that have been explored as Headcase continues, and reader will not be disappointed in what comes to light, nor how the protagonist deals with it. The full details about the compelling and unique motivations for the main murder makes for a very interesting read, and the diabolical method of murder is something that I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. While I did find that the use of a certain McGuffin was somewhat unrealistic, even for this crazy series, I was generally extremely happy with how the entire novel came together. The complex mystery is resolved in a very captivating way, and the character arcs that sit at the centre of the story go in some very interesting direction which should result in some fantastic books in the future. I personally came away from Headcase extremely elated and deeply impressed with just how clever an author Heath is.
On top of the outstanding and fantastically compelling story, I have a lot of love for Heath’s writing style, which deeply enhances each of his books. The quick pace, the fantastic dives to both the past and future, and the intense blend of mystery and insane personal issues surrounding the main characters, makes for some outstanding reading, and there honestly isn’t a single part of Headcase that wasn’t extremely fascinating or fun. Understandably, due to the story content, this is a pretty gruesome series, and Heath doesn’t hold back on the detailed depictions of dead bodies, nor the terrible things that his protagonist does to them. However, he never goes way too over-the-top, and the gore and cannibalism always serves a vital purpose, either to provide clues to the mystery or to highlight the protagonist’s complex nature. It also helps to make the series particularly distinctive, even amongst other impactful thrillers, and you must love just how obsessed and focused the main character/narrator is about dead bodies. Like most of the books in this series, Headcase can be very easily read as a standalone novel, and Heath is very careful to concisely fill in any relevant details that the reader might need. However, as with most ongoing series, those people who have read the earlier books in the series will probably get a lot more out of Headcase emotionally, especially when it comes to seeing the progression of the protagonist. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Headcase to a new reader, as they are guaranteed to have a fun and unique time with this outstanding read.
I must highlight Heath’s captivating and complex central protagonist, Timothy Blake, who is once again one of the best things about this entire book. I really love the character of Blake in this series as he is such an intriguing and damaged character due to his deranged cannibalistic tendencies, which often drive him to do terrible things in the name of obtaining human flesh. There are so many great scenes where Blake feels his desire and hunger for human meat start controlling his actions and the character is constantly fighting for some measure of self-control. Despite this, he is a relatively good person and a skilled investigator whose keen observation skills, canny insights, intense survival instincts, and intimate knowledge of human bodies give him some intriguing edges during a case. While he often likes to pretend that he is only helping the case to get fresh meat, he is also obsessed with finding the truth and getting justice, which, when combined with his romantic desires for his former FBI partner Reese Thistle make him occasionally seem like a good, if highly damaged, person. These seemingly incompatible parts of his personality are so damn effective, and it is always quite fascinating to see what part of his personality actually wins: the feral hungry beast or the surprisingly heroic detective.
The version of Blake in Headcase is particularly interesting as Heath comes up with some new range of issues and problems for him to overcome on top of his all-consuming hunger. After managing to survive his particularly desperate situation in Hideout, he has a somewhat different lease on life which goes with his new job. However, he is still in love with Thistle, even after their confrontations in the last two books, and this is encouraging him to be a better person. This desire to be a better person somewhat goes against the desires of his new masters in the CIA, especially his partner Zara, who try to use his fractured mind to their advantage and his desire to change for Thistle puts both her and Blake at risk. He also undergoes therapy for the first time in his life, albeit somewhat against his will. These scenes with the psychologist are particularly fascinating as they discuss his cannibalistic desires and his general sanity. While the psychologist doesn’t believe he is a cannibal, her insights give Blake a lot to think about, especially when he comes to the revelation that he might be able to overcome these life-long issues if he sought treatment. This really alters Blake’s perspective of his entire life, and it, as well as some insights he gets from viewing other patients at the mental hospital he is locked in, proved to be a very interesting tipping point for the character growth we have witnessed throughout the series. It will be very interesting to see how Heath continues to explore and highlight Blake in the future and I have a feeling we are only on the start of a particularly dark and emotionally rich journey.
In addition to Blake, Heath has loaded Headcase with an intriguing array of unstable and entertaining supporting characters who add some awesome value to the entire novel. The most prominent of these is Blake’s CIA partner in this case, Zara. Zara was introduced in the previous novel, Hideout, when she managed to infiltrate a group of psychotic killers extremely successfully, before recruiting Blake with the promise of bodies to eat. While Zara serves as an effective agent and partner to Blake, she is ultra-violent and has some major mental issues and might even be crazier than Blake (which is saying something). Zara ends up forming a toxic relationship with Blake in this book, especially as she utilises his addiction and leads him into to some deadly and dark situations. She proves to be a fantastic addition to the plot and I love how intense and threatening Heath made her at times. There are some great reveals around her, as well as a certain incident that matches her with Blake, and I loved all the awesome stuff Heath set up around her. Heath also makes sure to bring back Blake’s former FBI partner and love interest, Reese Thistle, who has another interesting run in Headcase. Blake and Thistle have had a very compelling relationship throughout the series, which got even more complicated when Reese found Blake’s fridge full of corpses. Still keeping his secret after he saved her life, Reese is very awkward with Blake, which adds to Headcase’s dramatic tension. Despite this, the two do work together to try and solve the murder and it was nice to see them teaming up again. Of course, this leads to more danger and despair for both of them, but Heath is taking their relationship in some interesting directions, and I look forward to seeing how that turns out. Throw in a compelling group of potential suspects, foreign agents and mental patients that the protagonist has to work his way through to solve this complex case and you have an outstanding group of characters that I had a lot of fun with.
With his latest Timothy Blake novel, Headcase, Jack Heath continues to impress with his epic and captivating take on murder and complex characters. This incredible novel takes the reader on an awesome journey through insanity, obsession, and desperation, all centred around an impossible and very clever mystery. I had a brilliant time powering through Headcase, and I have so much appreciation for Heath’s scary wit and ability to dive into the head of a killer. Headcase is an exceptional book that comes highly recommended, I cannot wait to see what outstanding mysteries and thrillers he produces in the future.