The ‘smart’ home assistant is seemingly benign, but there is always a possibility that the controller may soon become the controlled
The ‘smart’ home assistant is seemingly benign, but there is always a possibility that the controller may soon become the controlled

S.K. Tremayne follows up his worthy bestseller, The Ice Twins, with The Assistant, a remarkably well-crafted suspense thriller that promises to be a resounding success. His protagonist in the new novel, Jo Ferguson, is a talented female journalist, recently divorced and struggling to get her life back in order. Her former husband, Simon, for whom she still harbours feelings and vice versa, has partially moved on by remarrying and fathering a child. Jo’s own childlessness and her late father’s battle with schizophrenia, as well as a serious incident in her past, lay the foundations for the neuroses underlying her character, which Tremayne skilfully builds upon over the course of the book.

Although Jo remains the central protagonist from start to finish, a non-living character is as central to the machinations of the novel as the heroine herself: Jo’s technological home assistant, Electra. Early in the novel, Jo discovers — much to her horror — that Electra (and less important assistants in a couple of other rooms) appears to possess a life and voice of her own. Moreover, Electra’s views are far from benign, in that she threatens to expose a horrific secret from Jo’s past in the event Jo does not comply with Electra’s macabre request to commit suicide.

What is spooky about this ostensibly far-fetched premise is how terrifyingly plausible Tremayne makes it. We are told that the onset of Jo’s father’s schizophrenia took place at a point when he felt that his television was speaking to him. Jo finds herself caught between a rock and a hard place: she is indebted to her friend, Tabitha, who owns the flat in which Jo lives, so she is reluctant to dispense with the assistants that have been supplied by Arlo, Tabitha’s significant other. Yet, as Electra’s demands become more insistent and her taunts more cruel, Jo realises that she is in the middle of a surreal pitched battle with malevolent artificial intelligence.

The apartment itself, spacious and luxurious, is in London’s tony Primrose Hill district, very close to the house where the famous and troubled poetess Sylvia Plath took her own life. I was especially impressed by the clever way in which Tremayne has layered the innuendos of the novel, since those lend themselves to intriguing interpretations. Plath was sexually abused by her father when young and this point manifests itself at a crucial juncture in the novel. Even more interesting is that, in Greek mythology, Electra was the daughter of the powerful king Agamemnon. Her loyalty to him was so intense that Freudian psychology labels a daughter’s manifestation of extreme Oedipal desires for the father as the Electra Complex.

The new novel by S.K. Tremayne is another well-crafted and hugely enjoyable suspense thriller, which pulls you into a world of neuroses and artificial intelligence

While it is not clear that Jo suffers from this disorder per se, Tremayne does a wonderful job of detailing the manner in which memories of her childhood — especially loving ones involving both her parents — crowd in on her as her mental state begins to deteriorate under Electra’s influence. Naturally, no one, ranging from her affluent and unsentimental friend Tabitha to her privately sympathetic ex-husband Simon, can truly believe that Jo’s fears have a genuine basis in reality. But the reader and Jo both realise that something is superlatively wrong when Electra threatens to expose Jo’s involvement in a murder that she and Tabitha may have inadvertently caused at the Glastonbury Music Festival years ago.

Readers who wish to terrify young people away from the lure of drugs need look no further than The Assistant. While at Glastonbury several years ago, Jo and Tabitha were sold recreational pills that they passed on to Jamie Trewin, a young friend of Tabitha’s. The drugs were unusually strong amphetamines with lethal consequences and, on ingesting the stimulants, Jamie graphically vomits blood and suffers tremendous seizures before succumbing to them, much to the horror of both Jo and Tabitha. The choice of lethal amphetamines is a good one on the part of Tremayne, since stimulants can be particularly deadly when one overdoses on them; indeed, crystal meth, or ‘ice’, is a true gateway drug to harder stuff than the far more benign marijuana, which is derived from the cannabis sativa plant.

Taking charge of matters, Tabitha forces Jo to pretend as if they had nothing to do with Jamie’s unfortunate demise. Although she later confides in Simon, Jo conceals this event from virtually everyone else, which explains why she becomes increasingly paranoid that her rich flatmate and ex-husband may be conspiring to drive her insane. Supporting characters, such as a homeless man who has a soft corner for Jo and vice versa, a sensible and sympathetic psychiatrist who is reluctant to commit her, and sundry friends — one of whom turns out to be a betrayer of the highest magnitude — round off the action of the novel admirably.

Like J.K. Rowling, Tremayne prefers his name not to be a giveaway insofar as his gender is concerned but, given that he has now written multiple novels — each more successful than the last — this point hardly needs to remain a state secret. The Assistant displays clean, logical masculine plot lines and a surprisingly accurate insight into female fears and neuroses. Not a single occurrence is out of place, and not since some of Agatha Christie’s best works have I seen such economical writing, where every sentence is well-placed, done so skilfully and enjoyably.

Loose ends are blessedly tied up, ostensibly evil characters turn out to be relatively innocent and let off the hook and, in spite of all the technological skill and voice-mimcry that an entity such as Electra has at her disposal, she is ultimately defeated by a flash of human insight which Jo experiences after viewing something as simple and basic as a person’s handwritten inscription in a book of Plath’s poems.

The famous children’s comic book character Richie Rich was once able to defeat a malevolent computer by using just two fingers: he unplugged it! In one of the most touching scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the android Data is on trial, Commander Will Riker puts a temporary end to Data’s touchingly humane defence by simply switching it/him off. Artificial intelligence need not rule us, Tremayne grimly underscores; the book implies that our creator remains superior to us.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The Assistant
By S.K. Tremayne
Harpercollins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008309510
376pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 10th, 2020