The Ultimate Stalker Novel
Monday, September 25, 2006
THE WRONG MAN
By John Katzenbach
Ballantine. 461 pp. $25.95
Stalkers. We read lurid stories about them in the papers. In New York and Los Angeles, obsessive creeps harass gorgeous actresses and models. In the heartland, ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends abuse or kill women who've rejected them. I'd never given these lowlifes much thought, but now I have, thanks to the veteran crime novelist John Katzenbach, who has put a psychopathic stalker at the center of one of the scariest novels I've ever read.
He's a petty criminal named Michael O'Connell, who is young, handsome, charming and insane. He works in a Boston auto repair shop -- intimidating his co-workers and ripping off his customers -- and has made himself expert with computers. By chance he meets the lovely Ashley Freeman, a recent college graduate who's working in a museum before she enters grad school. They have drinks, one thing leads to another, and he spends the night. The next day she regrets the mistake and tries politely to get rid of O'Connell, but that proves to be impossible. They are, he explains, in love.
Soon Ashley's father, history professor Scott Freeman, finds a letter that O'Connell has written his daughter proclaiming that "we will be together forever. One way or another." The letter alarms him. He asks Ashley if she's having any problems, but -- being an independent and liberated young woman -- she won't admit to any. He calls his ex-wife, Sally, but -- being a lawyer, and also being predisposed to disagree with anything he says -- she insists that there's no evidence of a crime. Sally's partner, Hope, a counselor and soccer coach in an elite prep school, is more concerned, but for a time these people just hope the jerk will go away. Meanwhile, O'Connell follows Ashley on a date, watches her kiss a young man good night, and later beats him senseless.
O'Connell keeps calling Ashley. Her father confronts the younger man, who laughs at him. The stalker uses his computer skills to punish Ashley's family. He tampers with their financial records and sends the kind of anonymous charges to their employers that can threaten the careers of a college professor or a lesbian who coaches a girls' soccer team. But the victims can prove nothing. They fear what the stalker may do next. Kidnap Ashley? Kill her? They learn that, as one character puts it, "real, debilitating fear comes from uncertainty." Being reasonable people, they are all but helpless in the face of pure evil.
Following the conventions of the genre, Sally finds excuses not to call the police -- and when they finally are summoned, they can do nothing. Where is the evidence of a crime? Finally the family agrees they must act on their own, outside the law, to rid themselves of this monster. But can they outsmart so cunning and violent an adversary?
It's an old story -- evil menaces good -- but it works here because Katzenbach knows his characters so well and takes us so deep into their lives. He tells us what it's like to coach a girls' soccer team, what it's like to be a college girl on a first date, how a professor can be devastated by a plagiarism charge, and how two middle-aged women cope with a love affair that's fading. "We take a lot for granted in our nice, safe middle-class lives, don't we?" one of them says, and that's the key. Ashley and her family are people we know in our own nice, safe lives. If this nightmare could happen to them, it could happen to any of us.
A sense of doom hangs over the novel. Katzenbach hints that someone is going to die -- someone other than the stalker -- and our anxiety grows. There were times when I put this book aside because I wasn't sure I wanted to know what new horror the author would inflict on these people. A lot of scary novels work intellectually -- you admire the nasty characters, the shrewd plotting -- but this is one that works emotionally. To put it another way, Hannibal Lecter is scary in the abstract, but we are unlikely in our workaday lives to be targeted by an insane cannibal. Katzenbach, however, persuades us that we might be all too vulnerable to a relentless psychopath who could attack with both a knife and a computer.
This is Katzenbach's 10th novel. As a young reporter, he covered Ted Bundy's trial, an experience that informed "The Traveler" (1988), which remains one of the best serial-killer novels. Now he's written the ultimate stalker novel. Readers may sense a certain duality in "The Wrong Man." Even as the stalker inflicts pain on Ashley and her family, the novelist inflicts another kind of pain on his readers. This is superior storytelling -- a thriller that cuts deep.