At the start of John Katzenbach’s powerful new thriller, a retired university professor in Massachusetts learns that he has a rare form of dementia that will soon erode his memory and kill him. The professor, a widower, decides to go home and end his life. However, as he arrives, he sees a teenage girl being forced into a van that quickly speeds away. He calls the police, but the detective who investigates thinks that the old man is confused and that the girl is probably a runaway.
In truth, 16-year-old Jennifer has been kidnapped by Michael and Linda, stylish psychopaths who intend to exploit her on their pay-per-view Web site, Whatcomesnext.com. There women are tormented, raped and finally murdered as well-heeled voyeurs around the world watch in fascination. Jennifer, chained to a bed in front of cameras in the basement of an isolated farmhouse, has become the anonymous Victim No. 4 on this ghoulish reality show. The question is whether the professor or the detective can save Jennifer before it’s too late.
It’s a fiendish story, told with Katzenbach’s usual skill and professionalism. Michael and Linda reminded me of memorable villains in the great “Commandment” and “Deadly Sin” series that Lawrence Sanders published in the 1970s and ’80s. They’re smart — he’s a computer wiz, and she came out of advertising — and relentlessly amoral. Both are obsessed with sex — tormenting women turns them on — and they share a delusion that they have invented an art form. We’re rooting for plucky Jennifer to escape these monsters, or for the forgetful but determined professor to find her if the detective cannot. But the location of the Web site is concealed by “high-speed transfers to various Web engines in eastern Europe and India” and almost impossible to trace.
We see paying customers savoring the plight of Victim No. 4. Two fraternity boys at the University of Georgia regard her suffering as they might a particularly lurid soap opera. One lad bitterly regrets that he must rush off to class and miss her eagerly expected deflowering. (“The fun is watching in real time.”) An arty couple in SoHo consider Whatcomesnext “an extension of Warhol’s world” and decide that watching it is work-related and thus tax-deductible.
During the professor’s search for Jennifer, he forces a pedophile to guide him into the swamp of pay-per-view porn: “For hours, the two men wandered through a computer world that seemed to exist in a parallel universe, one that had different rules, different morality. . . . They saw children. They saw perversion. They saw death.” Their journey is a surreal update of Virgil leading Dante down the circles of Hell.
My only problem with the novel is more mine than Katzenbach’s. He offers in-depth characterizations and a gripping plot. Sometimes I found myself wanting to skip past the characterizations to find out what had happened next to poor Jennifer. Serious readers should resist such an urge, but it’s not always easy. Really good plots can drive even the best of us to shameful behavior.
The ending is violent, astonishing and deeply moving. Still, some readers might dismiss the novel as exploitative. They shouldn’t. Katzenbach has for 30 years been one of our most intelligent and serious crime writers. As a young reporter in Miami, he covered Ted Bundy’s trial and drew on that encounter with evil to write his third novel, “The Traveler” (1987), one of the first and best of modern serial-killer novels. “What Comes Next” may be Katzenbach’s best book since “The Traveler” and is even more relevant.
Serial killers are evil but blessedly rare. Pornography, thanks to the Internet, has gone mainstream. It’s everywhere. Parents must teach small children how to deal with the explicit images so easily available via home computers. High school girls date boys who’ve received their sex education from online porn — and they flock to slasher flicks that trade in sadism and endless gore.
I think Katzenbach has contemplated our increasingly decadent society and been inspired to write the first great porn novel: not a glorification but an angry vision of where we are and what could come next. Are there sites like Whatcomesnext out there? Certainly, there are criminals who would gladly produce such shows if they could master the technology. Is there an audience that would pay well to watch such horrors? Need we ask? This is an exceptional novel — and a most troubling one.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.