The Killer Prose Of a D.C. Cop Turned Writer
Monday, April 3, 2006
By George D. Shuman
Simon & Schuster. 308 pp. $23
In a more perfect world, we would judge books purely on their merits and care not a whit whether the author is a movie star, a junkie, a Harvard freshman or a little old lady in Dubuque. Alas, in our celebrity-crazed, gossip-mad world, we lust for biographical tidbits and bring all-too-many preconceptions to the books we pick up. When I saw that George D. Shuman had served 20 years as a Washington policeman -- he retired as a lieutenant in the 1990s -- I was not expecting his first novel to offer literary merit or stylistic grace. I was ready to settle for an action-packed cops-and-robbers tale set on the mean streets of the District.
"18 Seconds" is one of the best-written, best-plotted, most impressive thrillers I've read in some time. Yes, it's a police story -- set in New Jersey, not Washington -- and offers plenty of action, but what distinguishes the novel is Shuman's skill at characterization. In his opening chapters, he introduces two admirable women and one unspeakably vile man. By the time the novel reaches its climax, we have come to believe so completely in these people that we suffer almost unbearable suspense.
Sherry Moore is in her thirties. An accident when she was 4 caused brain damage that left her blind but also with a strange gift: If she holds the hand of a dead person, she can see in her mind what that person saw in the final 18 seconds of his or her life. This may sound like a gimmick, but that's not how it plays on the page, thanks to Shuman's effective presentation of Sherry as a sympathetic, sensitive and troubled woman. Her gift has brought her fame and financial security, but not happiness. Sometimes she can comfort people about their loved ones' final moments, and sometimes she can tell the police who killed a murder victim. But she pays a high price in nightmares, isolation and the enduring pain of these visions.
The second woman, Kelly Lynch-O'Shaughnessy, is a police lieutenant in the Jersey Shore town of Wildwood Crest, where her father was once police chief. A mother of two, she is separated from her husband, who had admitted to a fling with another woman. Besides the pain of separation -- to forgive or not to forgive? -- she must suffer the resentment of lower-ranking male colleagues. She is an intelligent woman whose virtues, as well as her fears and uncertainties, ring true.
The third character, Earl Sykes, is a monster. We first see him as he is leaving the prison where he spent 30 years for crimes committed in Wildwood Crest: "His eyes were a liverish brown and draped with reptilian lids. . . . A brown, cauliflower-like tumor had formed behind one ear and another grew on his groin. A quarter-size patch of dead skin, which he would scratch until it bled, rankled the back of his neck." Inwardly, he is even more deformed. Sykes is bent on revenge, and the people on his list include O'Shaughnessy's father, who helped send him away. The fact that he is dying of cancer only intensifies his rage.
Sykes is a psychopath who stalks, kidnaps, tortures, rapes and kills not only without remorse, but with something approaching glee. He returns to Wildwood Crest, and soon women start vanishing. O'Shaughnessy investigates, and eventually Sherry Moore, the blind woman, is brought in to help. Any thriller reader knows where this story is headed -- one or both of these women is going to wind up in the clutches of this sadistic killer. I am not faint of heart, but I kept putting the book down and finding other things to do -- I wasn't sure I wanted to deal with what was coming. Some readers may be put off by the sheer evil of this character; for me, the excellence of Shuman's writing made the horror acceptable, and even more unnerving.
It's not easy to create a memorable villain who's also believable. Hannibal Lecter, that witty and sophisticated cannibal, is certainly an unforgettable monster, but we know he's not someone we're likely to encounter outside of Thomas Harris's novels. Earl Sykes is different. There are men like him moving among us, and now and then they kill us. After 20 years as a policeman, Shuman knows that, and he has the talent to put that evil on the page and make it specific and real.