The psychologically flawed detective is everywhere, from television's "Monk" (with OCD) to Jonathan Lethem's award-winning novel "Motherless Brooklyn" (with Tourette). In "The Uninvited," best-selling British writer Liz Jensen brings us Hesketh Lock, a handsome corporate investigator with Asperger's syndrome who must confront a world sliding into chaos.

Lock is good at reading patterns, in part because he looks past human emotions. In fact, he's oblivious to them -- it's how his disorder manifests. As his ex-girlfriend puts it, he's "a robot made of meat." She lives in London with her 7-year-old son; Lock moved to a remote Scottish island after their relationship ended. He doesn't quite have the wiring to come out and say it, but he is hurt by the breakup and feels a paternal tug toward the boy.

The relationships among all of them become important about halfway through the book, after a strange condition, in which children behave like savages, has spread across the globe. Maybe they're infected or having psychotic episodes. What is for sure is that they're murderers. Preadolescents are killing their parents. This is where the book begins -- the first shadows of the end times arriving in the form of a 5-year-old with a nail gun.

In this book, Jensen combines dystopia and mystery in a quickly paced light read. The puzzle of what's going on with the children and how it begins to erode the structures of our civilization has all the aspects of a page-turning thriller. However, it takes a while to get going. First, we follow Lock's investigation of whistle-blowing and sabotage at various multinationals. He sorts through the avalanche of data and rumor and hones in on the sources, reporting back to his boss. He is good at his job.


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Lock travels to far-flung parts of the globe, picking up languages with remarkable speed and slowly making connections among isolated events. He observes adults who seem to be out of control, first harming their environments and then themselves. He witnesses more than one suicide.

Bad behavior on the part of adults and children disrupts the normal flow of daily life. There are accidents and days with no school. Social media inflames rumors, until the Internet ceases to be reliable. A racially changed future looms. One nice thing about Lock's role as a business consultant is that it's never his job to stop what's happening; he's just trying to understand it.

And he's been amassing knowledge. He sifts through the legends and religions of different cultures, looking for a thread in how each explains the phenomena around them. Random details such as a dead man's stockpile of seaweed become important clues. What's happening with the adults and what's happening with the children may indeed be connected. When he returns to London, he must confront the threat to Freddy, his ex's son.

For Lock, this investigation challenges the very core of his belief system. He's such a rationalist that his boss calls him Spock, after the supremely logical "Star Trek" character. His studies included mythology because he finds it foreign and fascinating. Ghost stories, possessions, visitations -- none is possible in his worldview.

Yet here we run into the problem of Lock as a narrator: To the reader of a dystopian novel, all of the above are in the realm of possibility. Yet Lock cannot imagine beyond what he can prove. So the reader is at an advantage: We can see around Lock's blind spots. That's the case when it comes to figuring out the mystery, and when it comes to the emotional lives of people around him. Ultimately, Lock's limitations come off as something of a gimmick, and this promising story fails to keep unfolding in surprising ways.

Bloomsbury

$25, 325 pages