Review: Bitter Pill, by Peter Church

Has human depravity usurped the digital space or is it the other way around?

Literature Review


Bitter Pill_Peter Church
Bitter Pill, by Peter Church. Available via Bookshop.


“She suddenly needs to pee. She steps into a stall, undoes her belt, unzips her pants and pulls them down. A loud gasp as her legs buckle and she lunges forward, grabbing the edge of the loo seat as she falls to the floor. Her panties are on inside out.”


The first chapter of Peter Church’s novel Bitter Pill  uncovers a post-drink-spiking incident at the Blue Venus nightclub, from whichAngie Dean was abducted and later raped. The sense of terror she felt the previous night wasn’t alcohol induced hallucination. It is through this incident and the possibility of multiple predators in her case that Church unravels a yarn and tangles it for readers as the story progresses, the threads interweaving a mesh of dark web.


This opening sequence sets the tone of mystery and opens a list of questions, as it’s not Angie Dean who is the focus of the story, rather the details of the incident. The drink-spiking, abduction, and rape become the locus for the unfolding narratives of the novel's three main characters — Robbie Cullen, Julian Lynch, and Carlos.


Church’s former experience in information technology equips him to paint the dark realities of a digital world where proxy servers and perverted fantasies collide to prey upon unsuspecting college students. He uses the familiar terrain of Cape Town, South Africa to set the three parallel realities of Robbie Cullen (a UCT student), Julian Lynch (a Dark Video client) and the proxy presence of Carlos (owner of Dark Video) through his operators in the city.


The Dark video operators form the backbone of Carlos' digital empire, from drink-spiking to abduction and delivery of victims to Carlos' clients and covering their trails, they are on-field agents and facilitators. It is amidst these parallel digital and physical realities and a nexus of operators that readers follow the evolution of a racy narrative wherein the simulated realities of the dark web give a glimpse into the new cultural reality of the digital age. 


As is typical of crime fiction, the story opens on the cliff hanger where trippy Cape Town nightlife is disrupted by Angie Dean’s rape. And it is in the quest to piece together the incident that readers are taken into the lives of the three characters and the intermeshed network of the dark online world. The strength of the narrative is in the swift and lucid transition it makes from one-character arc to the other. 


The morning on which Angie Dean finds “her panties inside out,” Robbie Cullen is struggling with a hangover from the previous night. He wrestles with thoughts of his ex-girlfriend Melanie and the seductress Fallon he met at the club. From there, the narrative loses no time in taking us into the monotonous existence of the wealthy and divorced Julian Lynch before readers are inducted into the third dimension of the story that follows Carlos, who lives in America, as the internet ensures his powerful proxy presence in Cape Town’s dark underbelly and the lives of his rich clients there.


The trifurcation of the story unfolds as the characters, encompassing three different realities, brush past each other — unaware of the roles they are playing in dismantling the other. It takes one fancy weekend at Plettenberg Bay to pull Robbie Cullen into the dark world of pornography videos. It is his leaked video and close shave with the operators of the Dark Videos that he becomes fodder for Carlos’ competitors. 


However, when one of his clients in Durban, South Africa, is arrested Carlos senses an existential threat to his empire and the network he has created. He suspects that one of his competitors has a list of his clients and this gradually creates a sense of paranoia. This suspicion gradually takes over the sharp mind of the digital mafia leader and he keeps on missing the obvious signs of his eventual downfall.


Interestingly, it is not just the three central characters and their arcs which sustains the tension and thrill in the story, but the functionality of the human network of operators who maintain the aura of intrigue. The trusted operator Diva fulfills the perverted fantasies of Julian Lynch, ensuring the deliveries and services are satisfactory. As a resident of Bishopcourt mansion, Lynch is representative of a culture which has an insatiable urge to conflate pornographic fantasy/fetish with reality. 


The Mickey Fin Club is the nexus between the operators and creators of Carlos’ Dark Videos, ensuring the supply of prey — high-on-life college students. The story tries to explore the darkness of digital and human spaces as well as human minds. The jam-packed clubs and Julian Lynch's cluttered subconscious have dark recesses which disrupt the lives of the UCT students. Readers are kept on edge, with moments of doubt and unexpected revelations which tangle the story only to unravel it all in the last chapter, which ends on a high and realistic note.


The world of Bitter Pill  is laced with strippers, scopolamine, and graphic perversion embodied in the demands of Carlos’ clients. It is a union run and sustained by operators belonging to all walks of life who ensure the fulfillment of their clients’ sexual fantasies by hook or by crook. 


The leaked video of Robbie, Julian’s personal journal, Diva’s access to victims, identity fraud, and Carlos’s proxy server make a heady cocktail which takes readers into a world high on violence, voyeurism, and depravity where nothing is private anymore, but rather, available through a few clicks and hacks. 


In this dark digital empire, the characters try to play around with digital imprints and threads — some to satiate their fetish and some to ensure profitability from human perversion. However, in a world which thrives on digital copies and where online depravity is a norm, the content of Dark Videos is “like the head of Hydra” — which is true for the network of operatives as well.


Right until the end readers will find it hard to pin down who is the greater villain, leaving them with a pertinent question — has human depravity usurped the digital space or is it the other way around? Bitter Pill  leads to uncomfortable sedation, and induces gut wrenching nausea at the perverted fantasies. It is definitely not offering a cure, rather giving a taste of bitter reality where proxy servers run and ruin lives. It is a gripping novel which remarkably holds readers' attention with its taut narrative and escalating pace.



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Literature, Fiction, Crime, Technology, South Africa, Cyber, Social Media