Killing time – Frank Tallis

ISBN 0-140-27883-4
Show all books used

Reading experience

The cover shows on light blue ground a central pair of glasses and at the bottom something resembling the stump of the neck. The face itself is left out, just hinted at in the position of glasses and neck. A concentric target is drawn just above an imaginary head, the ‘g’ of the title, ‘Killing Time’, being the central point.
I have no idea how the pair of glasses and the target are meant to relate to the story. OK, glasses = academic, which circumscribes the setting of the story, but is that it? Is it the type of glasses that is supposed to be unfashionable and in turn, nerd-like (besides, this shape may be back in fashion already)?
The missing face echoes a curious feeling of irresolution and vanishing that the story, despite all its firmly described mental and physical detail, leaves behind.
Having read a good part of the novel from the start, later delving in at various places, I find it quite hard to sum up the reading experience.
The beginning, in the present tense, is artfully simple, hinting at much of what has already happened while denying the reader any details as to the reasons of Anna’s disappearance. It is this apparent coyness of the main character and narrator, and as the story progresses, the inverse of it: his obsessive honesty in divulging his feelings and relating in detail what has happened, that seems to cause a lingering sense of unease. The author clearly enjoys creating a field where the reader is set to oscillate between a movement towards identification with Tom and his first-person account, and a distancing movement due to the creeping awareness of the unwholesome nature of what Tom has in store for us.
As Tom begins musing about science, relationships and sex, religion and atheism, there is a point where I am led to suspect that some essence of the author – a habitus at once shy, provocative, and pedantic – begins to seep into his character. But this may well be the reader’s projection – it it this very ambivalence, something tentative and retracting, that seems constitutive for the reading experience.


  • Starts at the moment of Anna’s disappearance, then unfolds story more or less linearly from the past into a future years beyond the initial vantage point
  • Initiial event: (Tom’s (the I-perspective narrator’s ) girlfriend has disappeared, reader has no idea how or why
  • Question: What has happened that lead up to this point? Why is Tom initially so coy towards the reader as to what has happened?
  • Resolution: Narrator gets away with murder


  • Naturalistic, lots of realistic dialogue
  • A nerd (post-grad student, scientist) analysing his world
  • Characterisation filtered by narrator’s mind, a guy the reader is not inclined to fully trust.

Tropes and events

  • Trope: Scientists are basically nerds
  • Trope: Unloving parents spawn emotionally dysfunctional, cold offspring
  • Trope: Railway lovers are emotionally inept or immature
  • Trope: An extrovert friend intitiates the nerd to a word of intimacy and sex – but ultimately, the nerd can’t deal with all that
  • Trope: Jealousy, intensifying, evidence of betrayal leads up to murder. Man is betrayed by best friend
  • Event: A fluke event (unexplained, deus-ex-machina) saves Tom from the eventual discovery of the body and any future conviction for the crime.
  • Event: The discovery of a non-descript (forgotten, unmapped) space, the Paddington basin, a space that Tom later uses to dump Anna’s body


  • 218 pages with 12 chapters carrying whimsical titles, mostly topical descriptors alluding to science (“Electrical disruptions of temporal flow”, “The Schwenck problem”), or place names (“The Paddington Basin”, “A trip to Bournemouth”, “Harvard, U.S.A.”)

Style and language

  • Very deliberate and skilful use of style and manners of speaking for characterisation
  • The very opposite of hard-boided and action driven: Many of the dialogues and interior monologues / musings deal with science, evolution, sexual desire, morality, aesthetics, the workings of the mind, the world of academic research, and religion
  • Very realistic (non-idealised) description of the perceptions and actions unfolding in a personal relationship (the one between Tom and his girlfriend Anna)
  • Something in the precise description of sex seems owed to a conscious effort to overcome a deep sense of shame – the way one would force oneself to look very intently at something one would rather not look at at all (I guess this serves well to characterise Tom)
  • Some of the dystopian descriptions of the cityscape (especially the Paddington basin) reminded me of Ballard
  • Descriptions of details seem at times overdone, over-specific or gratuitous (fancy, mannered, in the following example even mimetic):

    The lights of the city had begun to shine, wink, blink, and sparkle. [5-167-24]

  • Tom is portrayed by employing a strangely stilted, distancing, formal, old-fashioned and at times very arrogant language which works as a class marker (even though Tom is purportedly from a lower middle-class background, offspring of conventional and unloving parents). The character relishes in despising low-life as much as Ellis’ main character in American Psycho:

    Our reunion did little to make me regret our long-standing poverty of social intercourse. [5-194-19] (…) After a hiatus punctuated only by the crackling inhalations and exhalations of my two unwelcome guests, I remarked on the afternoon’s advance toward evening. [5-195-8]

  • Some colloquialisms or clichés that may well have been used very consciously but upset my taste:

    Reluctantly, we got out of the car with our gold-standard smiles fixed in place. [5-104-24]

    I don’t know why I an so irritated by the use of ‘gold-standard’ – maybe it is just the memory of the very strong power of social conformity that I experienced in the UK. So in a sense, this description is entirely adequate, but seems to capture the experience somewhat at face value while a lot of Tom’s inner monologue elsewhere seems to attempt to reflect and transgress it.

  • Bodily metaphors to describe the filth of the city:

    A thick layer of putrid air encased the city. The taller structures like Telecom Tower and the NatWest building seemed to poke their summits through a mucal deposit. [5-167-16]

  • A few similes somehow misfiring (here, the proximity of ‘recoil’ and ‘retreat’):

    My awareness recoiled back into my skull like a salted mollusc retreating into a shell.[5-195-7]

What reviewers said

  • From the back of the novel: ‘A darkly arresting début from a gifted writer who approaches literature with the precision and coolness of a scientist… very readable.’ (Daily Telegraph)
  • From the back of the novel: ‘Like Ian McEwan rewritten by Robert Harris. Very unusual and entertaning’ (Toby Litt)
  • From the back of the novel: ‘Frank Tallis’s début novel is distinguished by its author’s sheer intelligence .. Good reading’ (Time Out)
  • From the back of the novel: ‘A very tight, thrillerish plot which unravels with the smooth elegance of film noir’ (The Times)
  • Georges T. Dodds, an avid collector and reader of Science Fiction, describes ‘Killing time’ along with another of Frank Tallis’ novels, ‘Sensing Others’. He wonders whether they qualify as Science Fiction, assumes they are British psychological thrillers, and compares them unfavourably to the late 40s work of British writer John Franklin Bardin. He thinks both books are not ‘noir’ proper:

    My noir standards of Cornell Woolrich’s Rendezvous in Black and Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me make Killing Time and Sensing Others look like material for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (or for my British readers, ‘like material for Teletubbies’).

    (SF Site – Killing time / Sensing others)

  • Nathan, on goodreads, has this to say:

    Curious little book. A tad light on the surface, but with psychological themes running underneath, with a little bit of Victoriana time-travel. I liked this a lot, and will happily read more of Tallis’ work. Rated MA15+. Contains adult themes, moderate violence, moderate drug use, strong sex scenes and sexual references. 4.5/5

Leave a Reply