By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 8:39 PM
DEAD LIKE YOU
By Peter James.
Minotaur. 554 pp. $25.99
Peter James's novels about Detective Superintendent Roy Grace have been bestsellers in England but have had little impact in this country. That could change with the publication here of the sixth in the series, "Dead Like You." It's a remarkably inventive story of sexual obsession, possibly the most engrossing thriller since Thomas Harris's "The Silence of the Lambs."
At its most obvious level, the novel is a realistic police procedural in which Grace heads the investigation of a series of attacks on women in and around Brighton, England. The narrative alternates between past and present, as the younger Grace investigates a series of rapes - and a murder - from a dozen years ago, and also similar attacks in the present that may be the work of the same criminal. As we move between past and present, we also move between Grace and his fellow officers, the rapists (for there prove to be two or more at large) and the victims of the attacks. We see the police frustrated by a lack of clues, even as the criminals methodically stalk their victims.
James has the self-confidence to slow his story's pace in order to develop his characters - and the gamble pays off, because his characters are vividly real. Grace himself is a dedicated cop who struggles to balance his work with his personal life, which includes an unhappy wife in the earlier period and a more accepting wife-to-be in the contemporary scenes. The victims of the attacks are particularly poignant, as we see them working, shopping, joking with friends, unaware that madmen are closing in. One stylish woman is blissfully unaware that by posting her social schedule on Facebook, she makes it all too easy for a man to plan her abduction.
If the attacks were all that was happening in the novel, it would be a first-rate procedural, but the story offers another dimension, an undercurrent of perverse humor. It is James's sardonic conceit that the rapists and their victims are brought together by their shared obsession with . . . shoes! The women's passion is for shoes that may cost $500 or more, the Christian Louboutins, the Japanese patterned Amia Kimonos, the Anya Hindmarchs with five-inch stilettos, the blue satin Manolo Blahniks with the diamante buttons - the list goes on and on, to the bewilderment of this reviewer, who doesn't know Jimmy Choo from Charlie Chan. We're told of one woman: "The defining moments in her life came on those days when she finally bought the shoes that she had been lusting after. . . . She was sex on legs!"
Indeed she was. Even as the women breathlessly shop for the objects of their desire, they are breathlessly shadowed by fetishists whose darkest urges are inflamed by those same shoes. Here's one nut case, savoring a gorgeous woman in a swank emporium: "He cast his eye over them, looking appreciatively at each of their shapes, their curves, their straps, their stitches, their heels. He imagined this woman naked, wearing just these. Doing what he told her to do with them."
One of the apparent rapists is an autistic cab driver - surely a first - who calls himself Yac. He's a shoe fetishist who has other obsessions as well. ("Do you have a high-flush or low-flush toilet in your home?" he asks startled passengers.) Yac's prostitute mother beat him with her high-heeled shoes, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's Shoe Man, as the police have dubbed the elusive rapist. There are other possible rapists running loose, including a policeman or two, and James keeps us uncertain as to who exactly is the prime culprit. Finally, when all is revealed, he pulls a switcheroo as unsettling as Dennis Lehane's at the end of "Shutter Island."
James also plays games inspired by American crime fiction and movies. One woman, seized by a rapist, recalls the horrors in "The Silence of the Lambs" - and, when she escapes, her captor pursues her while wearing night-vision binoculars, just as Buffalo Bill pursued Clarice Starling in a pitch-black basement. And is it pure coincidence that one of the possible rapists is named Starling? One of them dresses in women's clothing to better stalk his victims, calling to mind Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill." Other scenes recall Norman Bates in Hitchcock's "Psycho" and the amusement-park murder in "Strangers on a Train."
The complexity of James's narrative sustains suspense in a long novel, even as his occasional fun and games offer relief from its tensions. As with "The Silence of the Lambs," we sense a formidable intelligence at work, conjuring up a novel that's riveting, perverse and potentially as objectionable to some readers as it will be fascinating to others.
Anderson reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.