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Luther: The Calling: A Novel - Neil Cross Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a Goodreads giveaway.

When viewers of the British crime drama Luther first meet DCI John Luther, he’s literally on a precipice wrestling with a questionable decision. This novel tells the story of how Luther came to that moment, how his personal ethics became more and more grey as his life crumbled and a difficult murder-kidnapping case took its toll. As a reader, I was left wondering, “If I had seen the things Luther has seen, would I have done anything differently?” I’m not sure I would have.

I’ve become interested lately in pop culture anti-heroes, mostly through marathoning episodes of the AMC series The Walking Dead and thinking that a lot of the decisions made by the guy being portrayed as the “bad guy” in the first two seasons really weren’t all that wrong in the post-apocalyptic world in which he lived. Is there still a place for ethics in a world in which survival is of paramount importance? I like to think there is, that I’d fall on the side of those saying that clinging to our humanity in the face of overwhelming horror matters for something, but I’m not so sure.

Mild plot spoilers for Luther: The Calling:

Even though Luther is living in the real world we recognize, where people still have TVs and cell phones and everything works and there are no zombies lurking in the woods, in many ways his personal world is one in which survival trumps all – not his personal survival, but the survival of the people he can save. In this novel, the one person he can save becomes more important than the rules and more important than his wife’s last-ditch efforts to save their failing marriage – which is failing because Luther in essence is married to the job, leaving his wife in the position of jealous lover. Saving that one person – an 11-year-old girl – becomes so important because of the people he can’t save. Her parents. Her brother. Another couple murdered before them. Their infant daughter, ripped from her mother’s womb.

This case is a journey into the dark side for Luther, and as a reader I was left covered with a film of discomfort, horror and brutality. But that’s the point, I think. Luther is living with that same film, but he can’t be rid of it by closing a book. It’s become part of him because of the work he does, but that’s the sacrifice. That’s the calling. Some jobs are so important that they ask everything of us, and even when we’ve given our all, they ask a little more, and who’s to say that when we’ve hit that point of giving everything and still losing – because people still are dying – that we wouldn’t trade some of our own humanity to save just one? Because then maybe all of that sacrifice would be worth it.

I think it’s a fascinating question for crime fiction to ask: Can Luther still be the “good guy” if he takes off the white hat? What does it mean to be the “good guy” to begin with?

Neil Cross explores his ideas and characters with a stark, immediate prose that vividly places the reader in the scene and in the action. I’d recommend this for any fan of the television series, or fans of police procedurals in general.

Not, however, recommended for dog lovers. Trust me on that one.