I recently received an e-mail from a reader. This reader asked if they might write an article for their support group newsletter about the central character from 'The Anniversary Man', John Costello. Of course I agreed, and the article is reproduced below.
The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous, but was happy for me to post this piece on my blog.
Oh, and if you're planning on reading the book, don't read this as the article gives away the ending!
John Costello – A Man Of Fiction In Fact
On October 20th, I boarded a train to Birmingham for one of our monthly meetings, with a book in my hand, a book I would not have chosen to read, for fear of being disturbed by the subject matter, serial killing. But it was the book my library book group had selected. I was keen to read it as I had come across the author at a library conference. He was an eloquent speaker and an advocate of libraries. On that basis, I owed him a chance. I particularly remembered him saying people often expect him to be American, as all his books are set in the U.S.
The author was R.J. Ellory, the book title, ‘The Anniversary Man’.
One of the main characters whose world I entered was to have a profound effect on me.
John Costello was “a shy boy, a quiet boy” of 16, who’d recently found his first love, Nadia. One night, as they sat together on a bench, they became the intended victims of a serial killer, whose weapon was, the killer proclaimed, the “Hammer of God.” As the attack took place, John received serious head injuries, but Nadia died. The killer was caught and later committed suicide. However this was not the end of it for John. This experience shapes the man we encounter in adulthood.
All indicators early in the book suggest that – prior to this incident – John was an ordinary young man, not possessed of the behaviour patterns we later associate with him. The more I read about him, the more I began to suspect he’d be a good candidate for a group member. That intrigued me! I have never, to my knowledge, come across a book character, displaying ocd traits. Little descriptions started me thinking here was a kindred spirit, lines such as “Now he finds safety in routines. In counting. In making lists” and “Routines. Always routines”. Something else struck me, on which his colleague, Karen Langley, crime reporter at the New York City Herald, comments, “He has the most remarkable memory, can recall a conversation we had five years ago… remembers names, dates, places, phone numbers”. His colleague offers an explanation for his amazing mental capacity, namely “the injury he suffered when he was attacked…resulted in certain faculties being extended”.
While this is by no means a behaviour exclusive to ocd sufferers, it is true that we often attach particular importance to issues that we feel are significant, tending to be quite precise and exact about things. John is a character, like most of us, aware of their behaviours, or “idiosyncrasies”. However, he doesn’t seem to find it a problem, unlike us. Early on the author states “He is not crazy. He knows this for a fact. He just has a way of dealing with things”. He lives a quiet existence, has no social life and is rather a loner. Ellory writes “He didn’t want the world to witness his presence”. I understand that John’s part withdrawal from the world is not attributable to ocd but it does fit the character type of many of us, people who keep our true selves hidden only interacting with society to a point.
Essentially, John is a good man, not twisted by his past, but who becomes a crime researcher at the New York City Herald, studying serial murders in “an attempt to understand why people do these things”. He belongs to a group of serial killer survivors who take an interest in these cases too. When a spate of murders begins, he starts to tie them to previous cases, as copycat killings of several infamous serial killers. The lead investigator, Detective Irving, learns that this research is about to become a front page newspaper headline, courtesy of Karen. Determined to stop this, he tries to find John and has a brief meeting with him.
After John voluntarily passes on some useful information, Detective Irving requests to meet him again and enlists his help in cracking the case. Karen vouches for his good character “If John says he won’t talk about something, then he won’t. If he signs a confidentiality agreement then he’ll stick to it”. This is something else I’ve noticed in my fellow ocd sufferers, a compulsion to do the right thing and not cause harm to anyone or be seen in a bad light. John has so much knowledge on the subject that Irving starts to wonder if he may be the attacker, but hopes he isn’t.
As the murders continue, still copies of those of previous serial killers, down to their date and exact style, the police christen the perpetrator “The Anniversary Man”. When a picture of John and Detective Irving appears in the New York Times, showing them visiting the recent crime scenes, and the police receive a letter saying the murders will become personal, Irving starts to panic that John may be the next intended victim. Getting no answer from his apartment, he breaks in. Here is where I saw the description that most made me think this man had ocd behaviours.
In the first room there are “a series of metal book shelves, erected so close together there was barely space to stand between them, and upon those shelves were the spines of some sort of journal, literally hundreds of them, side by side, spanning the room from one wall to the next”. In the next room is a “small and pristine kitchen. The work surfaces were spotless, uncluttered with any of the usual accoutrements and utensils”. In the cabinets “every can is sitting beside it’s neighbour, label faced forward, stacked one on top of the other by content…apricots, borlotti beans, cannellini beans, chicken soup, clam chowder…The cans were alphabetized. “The bathroom cabinet contained eight bars of boxed soap, all the same, stacked end to end, beside them four tubes of the same toothpaste. Behind the toothpaste, carefully arranged, were Bufferin, Chloraseptic, Dristan, Myadec Multiples, Nyquil and Sucrets…” (interestingly enough all cold remedies and vitamins, which made me wonder if he had a particular worry about germs) “…again in alphabetical order. This time there was a further detail in that each container carried a small label that had been carefully stuck to the front in such a way that all the labels were not only of the same size, but they were positioned at precisely the same height. The labels gave the expiry date of the product…” (again maybe a way of averting harm, not wanting to use an out of date product?)
This sort of ordering would be considered ideal in my library environment, but does seem a little excessive in someone’s place of rest and relaxation. Where the journals are located “the edge of the window frame is sealed with some kind of heavy-duty white tape” (maybe to keep out contamination?) The diaries are full of writing, diagrams, drawings and repetitions of words. Irving comes to the conclusion, “I think it’s someone’s mind.” He sees, “They contained the thoughts and conclusions of John Costello from his late teens to the current day.”
For John it may have been a kind of therapy, a way of expressing who he was, and understanding his life. But again, it’s done in a very precise way and in great detail. I could understand why John didn’t let anyone in his apartment. He most likely anticipated people’s reaction to it, and wanted to keep his environment private. Sure enough Irving’s first thoughts are “This was not the apartment of a normal person, not by any stretch of the imagination, except in some strange and fractured reality, occupied by John Costello”.
A colleague of Irving’s describes John as “seriously….crazy”. Ellory handles this reaction well. It is exactly what a lot of people unfamiliar with our condition, would think, especially if investigating multiple murders! So we close the door and keep ourselves to ourselves for fear of what “normal” people will think. It is precisely on the strength of this that Irving decides to question John as a possible suspect. He is, of course, released without charge.
It was at this point that I had an interesting conversation with a fellow book group member. She asked if I thought maybe John had committed the murders. I said categorically not. In fact I went as far as to say I was so sure of his innocence, if I was wrong, I would leave our book group! This was when I realized how much I believed in John the man, not a one-dimensional character. I was on his side and sympathized with him as much as I would a friend. He had become important to me. I wanted desperately for him to be the hero of the book and go on to have a good future.
The tension really builds towards the book’s end. Several more copycat murders have taken place and John goes missing, prompting Irving to have to think again if he might be the murderer. In the meantime, Irving is contacted by a man who claims to know who the killer is. He wants to speak to Irving and a neutral party. Irving asks Karen to accompany him. They arrange a meeting at a diner, but the venue is changed at the last minute, to a bench in a park. Irving, thrown by this, misses the significance of the place and date, the exact location where John’s attack took place, twenty-two years to the day. Watched by police, the informer approaches Irving and Karen as a stranger in a baseball cap steps up from behind. As the informer raises his hand, declaring “I am the Hammer of God!” he proceeds to attack Irving and Karen, and the stranger behind fires a gun. Seeing this, the police fire a non-fatal shot to debilitate him. However, this leaves him at the mercy of the attacker, who then strikes. He sustains fatal head injuries and dies. The informer was not an informer at all. He was the man responsible for every one of the copycat killings. The stranger is revealed as John Costello and is indeed the hero of the book. In anticipating the attack and trying to save Irving and Karen, he succumbs to his previous fate.
I couldn’t believe it. It was unthinkable!
I pondered about the ending and the character of John for days, so much so that I did something I’ve never done before. I contacted the author! I said I was interested in this character especially that he had ocd tendencies. I’d discovered this condition featured in a couple of his other books too. So I wondered if he had experience of this personally. I also added that I was devastated John died at the end. Now I know R. J. Ellory is one of the U.K’s most prolific crime writers and a very busy man, so I sent my e-mail, never expecting a word back. Well I couldn’t believe my eyes next day to find a reply! Not, I believe, from someone on his behalf, but from the man himself!
Here is part of his reply: “As for personal experiences with OCD and other such conditions, I am not professionally qualified as a therapist or anything like that, but I have some experience in the field of long-term drug and alcohol abuse. The side-effects of drugs manifested themselves in many and varied different ways, and I think I drew on some of those personal experiences in creating the character of Costello. That's not to say that OCD is a result of drug abuse, of course, but simply that there are certain behaviour characteristics that I recognized from dealing with people who had adopted ‘coping mechanisms’ to better deal with life. I think we all have our coping mechanisms, and OCD – as a condition – is just an exaggerated and chronic manifestation of that. However, please understand that this is merely a layman’s opinion, and I do not profess to understand it in actuality. As for Costello himself, I think he sort of had to die, in all honesty. I think he felt that he had somehow escaped his fate, which was perhaps to die beside Nadia. However, he survived, and went on to cope with the trauma of that experience in the way he saw was best.”
I can’t explain how excited I was to receive this reply! It answered my questions perfectly and allowed me to see John’s death in positive terms for him. The saddest thing was I was eager to show this great reply to my colleagues at the library, where I work. I did. But not until I’d removed any mention of ocd, the silent condition they don’t know I have.
That is why it’s important for me to attend our meetings and share my true self with friends. And so I was glad to share a part of my greatest love, reading, with you.
It was so refreshing to read Ellory’s depiction of John Costello, a man with ocd traits, a good man, who touched me, in fiction, more than most have done in reality. I know some of you find it difficult to concentrate on reading but if you only try one book, this is the one I recommend (even though I have revealed the ending, sorry!).
I cannot thank R.J. Ellory enough for making the unacceptable acceptable and validating, it would seem, my existence and that of my fellow people with quirks! Incidentally, when the police visit the apartment of the murderer, they find it more or less exactly the same as John’s. They also discover he was a brief member of the group John belonged to, although it is unclear whether he was ever the victim of a serial killer. What does this prove? I’ll leave the last words to our eminent author “One man went one way, another took a different route”