The Last Voice They Hear by Ramsey Campbell (1998): Geoff and Gail Davenport are the proud parents of three-year-old Paul and co-workers on a British news show called The Goods, which exposes corruption and abuse at schools, workplaces and other venues. They live in London, England, though Gail is originally from San Francisco and Geoff from Liverpool. Gail’s parents are about to visit.
And Paul is about to get a phonecall from someone he hasn’t talked to in twenty years — his estranged, older half-brother Ben, the product of terrible emotional and physical abuse from Ben’s step-father (Geoff’s father), Ben and Geoff’s mother, and their grandparents.
And that phonecall means the end to domestic bliss, as Campbell puts another happy family through Hell.
When they were children, Geoff tried to shield Ben from their parents’ wrath whenever he could. But he was a kid, and he failed. A lot. And now Ben blames him as much or more for his woes than he does their late parents and late grandparents. But there’s more. Over the last seven years, someone has been killing elderly couples in a particularly gruesome way, staging the bodies to make a comment about…something.
Now Ben tells Geoff that he’s the killer, and that Geoff has to play an even worse version of a bad childhood ‘game’ Ben cooked up in order to divine Ben’s new identity, stop the killings — and protect young Paul, in whom Ben is inordinately interested. And so we’re off.
Ben’s ability to operate freely, at least for awhile, is bought by threats against Geoff’s wife and child — terrible things are promised should Geoff bring the police into the loop — but also by Geoff’s own empathy and sense of guilt for Ben, empathy and guilt Ben has been using to emotionally leverage Geoff since childhood.
The novel doesn’t waste much space hiding Ben’s new identity from the reader. The Last Voice They Hear is a mystery about how people become the way they are, not who they are. Ben’s treatment as a child and as a teenager is indeed awful — but the mystery of why he blames Geoff more than anyone else informs much of the narrative.
Campbell deftly uses multiple third-person limited POVs to jump between first two and then three threads of the story to maintain suspense until shrinking the narrative back down at the end to one tense, focused final chase. Ben isn’t sympathetic, but one feels pity for him throughout.
More importantly, while the novel shows Ben to be an extremely bright and competent killer, he’s never shown to be a Lecter-style Superman. He has flaws, and his competence is ultimately as much a part of his psychic scarring as are his more pitiable traits. Geoff, as the nominal hero, may not be as interesting, but he’s also flawed and almost fatally compromised by his desire to protect his family — his entire family. It’s his most decent, humane qualities that just might get everyone killed. Just as Ben wants it. Highly recommended.