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Spotlight on: Finishing Touches by Thomas Tessier

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Finishing Touches by Thomas Tessier Thomas Tessier, Finishing Touches

This early Thomas Tessier novel (first published in 1986) is one of the creepiest, most disturbing pieces of fiction I've read since Dan Simmons' Song of Kali, and it shares a similar intelligence with that seminal novel. Finishing Touches starts slowly and maintains that same pace throughout, never rising above a slow burn, but always making sure to keep the fires hot. Tessier piles on shock after shock in this tale of an American expatriate doctor and how his impulsive trip to London, and the people he meets there, irreversibly change his entire philosophy of life.

When his aunt dies, leaving him a comfortable inheritance, Dr. Tom Sutherland decides to take time off from his burgeoning medical practice and spend six months in London seeing the sights and generally taking it easy. His first attempt at absorbing the local color is to eat the majority of his meals in the local bars, and in one of these he meets Dr. Roger Nordhagen, a locally respected plastic surgeon (he puts the "finishing touches" on his not-quite-perfect clients). They spend a lot of their time together, and eventually the places they meet, as Nordhagen's behest, become more and more outlandish in their offerings.

One night, instead of meeting with Tom, Roger sends his personal assistant, Lina Ravachol, as a substitute. Tom is not upset as Lina is one of the most seductively beautiful women he has ever seen, and she takes an instant liking to Tom as well, going so far as to invite him to spend the weekend as her place. There she opens his mind to the various sexual possibilities two people can explore -- and Tom awes himself at how willingly he indulges in some of its more violent aspects. The more Tom does with Lina, the more he wants to be with her, and the readier she is to show him even darker sides of herself, but not her deepest secret. That will have to wait.

Tessier takes us in the mind of Tom through the first-person narration. We get to know exactly how he feels about everything that happens, and get to follow his emotional trek from horror to eagerness at the prospect of ever more depraved activities, eventually rationalizing his need to commit premeditated murder in order to assure his future. In so offering a protagonist that is simultaneously likeable and repellent, Finishing Touches offers some of the best psychological horror available.

Also included in this Leisure edition is Tessier's 2001 novella, Father Panic's Opera Macabre, originally published separately by Subterranean Press. The novella was even more of a disappointment, with such an evocative title leading to little more than grand guignol -- and bad grand guignol at that! Neil, a historical novelist, has his car break down and has to spend the night with a beautiful woman in a strange mansion. The cliches abound, and Tessier drags things out to the point that very little happens for the first 70 pages (out of 125); and when things do start happening, the complete lack of creativity ensures that the villains will be Nazis and the end will be predictable. A sorry waste of pages tacked onto a solid novel makes for a sadly uneven experience -- although at least you won't have to pay $40 to find out.

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