The Sleepless

Liam Bell

(Fly on the Wall, £10.99)

Liam Bell can write an arresting opening. In The Sleepless, his fourth novel, the curtain rises on a gathering of members of a cult dedicated to banishing sleep from their lives, or at least restricting it to the bare minimum, so they can make the most of their time on Earth and liberate themselves from the global sedation imposed on them by society.

Their leader, Swami Ravi, has summoned them to witness the new method he has devised for releasing toxins from the brain, which involves plunging an electric drill into a volunteer’s forehead. It is predictably messy, and fatal. But Ravi is not deterred. They’ll find a second willing subject and try again.

Grafton (he never uses his first name any more) lost his wife, Liz, to the Sleepless cult several years earlier. Before alcoholism cost him his career and his marriage, he was a journalist, but now, at 57, he mans the traffic desk at a Glasgow radio station.

His wife’s holidays from him and their son, Isaac, became longer and more frequent, until eventually she never came back, giving up her old life to join Swami Ravi. The shock sobered him up, and he’s been a devoted single dad to Isaac ever since.

One day, when a woman phones the radio station to talk about a Sleepless commune near Ardnamurchan, Grafton sees an opportunity to find out more about the cult that ensnared his wife and perhaps get an article out of it that could ease his way back into journalism.

Leaving the teenage Isaac a paltry £20 to last him until he gets back, Grafton enrols in the commune for a few days with a tape recorder hidden in his robe. He has arrived at an auspicious time. Ravi himself is currently in prison, and this new offshoot inspired by his beliefs is led by the charismatic but fragile Joan and kept in line by her enforcer, ex-soldier Eddie.

Joan is in the middle of a twelve-day stretch without sleep, the conclusion of which will mark a great leap forward for their movement. Trying to keep a low profile in the midst of a paranoid community, Grafton cautiously collects information, oblivious to the fact that his decision to infiltrate it will have serious repercussions for himself, his son and his estranged wife, who is, unknown to him, heading back to Scotland.

Liz’s task is to ensure that this new spin-off is staying true to Ravi’s teachings, and to bring it back on-message if necessary. And while she’s in the country she intends to drop in on the son she abandoned to see how he’s doing. She has no idea that Grafton is currently in the commune – at least, not at first.

As a thriller, The Sleepless genuinely gets the pulse racing, especially when the tension between the commune and its neighbouring village escalates to a war footing. But it derives much of its strength from the central triangle of Grafton, Isaac and Liz, and the dynamic each establishes with Joan.

Liz’s return after years away upsets the balance between Grafton and his son, especially now that Isaac feels Grafton has left him in the lurch. And while Liz comes blazing into the commune to lay down the law, setting a paranoid group even more on edge, her detached, tough-love attitude towards Isaac leaves him vulnerable to Joan’s manipulation.

Bell has points to make about cults and conspiracy theorists, but the thrills here are driven by characterisation and family dynamics, and it’s all the more gripping for it.