Psycho killer, psycho killer, which dude is the psycho killer? That’s the question at the thumping heart of Justin Kramon’s new thriller, “The Preservationist.” Set on the campus of fictional Stradler College, the story features a shy freshman named Julia who belongs to that hardy breed of suspense heroines inclined to take solitary walks at midnight and linger in empty dormitories even after two undergraduates have been assaulted. In addition to its poor public-safety record, Stradler College has enrolled more than its share of weirdos, all of them intent on invading Julia’s personal space. Even worse, one of her sketchy suitors turns out to be minoring in serial killing, although his transcript looks squeaky clean. If Julia doesn’t crack this guy’s cover fast, she’s likely to join his sorority of victims and earn herself a permanent “Incomplete.”
“The Preservationist” is a simple thriller in which plot rules. Kramon doesn’t tax readers with atmosphere or character development. In fact, Freudian Theory 101 suffices to flesh out all the players here: Julia is isolated by guilt over the accidental death of her older brother, and, thus, she’s vulnerable to manipulation; the psycho killer is tormented by memories of his sexually inappropriate parents; and the Good Guy is bent on atoning for his youthful cowardice. Got it?
Kramon’s writing style is also pretty elementary. In the opening chapters, in particular, he generates so many flat similes that they quickly become distracting: “The air felt like a shirt just out of the dryer”; “all the excitement just drained out, like water from a tub”; “the light in the woods was thin and clear, like light in an aquarium.” But, as the story gets going, this stylistic tic becomes less pronounced — or maybe it just seems petty to focus on simile pile-ups when poor Julia is breathless with terror.
Things start out pleasantly enough. In her first semester, Julia finds herself in the unusual — and not altogether comfortable — position of being regarded as an object of desire by three different men. Marcus, a nice enough guy in her music class who has the disconcerting habit of smiling too much, à la Jack Nicholson, asks her out for lunch. Their date irks Sam, a cute older guy who works at the campus snack bar. Sam has been trying to woo Julia by slipping extra pickles onto her sandwich plate. He, too, seems amiable, although it’s odd that he hangs around campus and tries to pass for a much younger man. Drew, the boyfriend of Julia’s roommate, is so attentive to her that it’s downright repulsive: Julia’s internal alarms go on red alert the evening she finds him rooting around in her bureau.
Sam quickly wins this first round of the dating game, and yet Julia has misgivings. Why does he stare at her so blankly during intimate moments? Why is his apartment so bare, and what’s in that strange box she once spotted? Marcus, meanwhile, tries his devious best to sabotage Julia’s new relationship with Sam. Is Marcus irrationally jealous? Kramon’s omniscient narrator peers into the minds of principal characters, and since all of them have something to hide, their thoughts sound incriminating.
Standard creepy events escalate: footsteps that trail Julia on a lonely path, a familiar cat that turns up mutilated in her dorm room. (Where is security at this school?) Kramon pulls his climax — featuring an isolated cabin and a blinding blizzard — straight out of the Christie playbook, although it must be noted that Dame Agatha never permitted knife-wielding predators entrance into her fiction.
“The Preservationist” is superficial and schematic, but the final plot twist lifts it into the Gentleman’s “C” range. For those readers looking for logic and psychological depth in their mysteries, I recommend taking a pass.
Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Justin Kramon
Pegasus. 284 pp. $24.95