The numbers are in. The tally of Americans offed by serial killers in fiction far surpasses the one in real life. The discrepancy, however, is unlikely to deter thriller writers. The temptation of pitting a cunning killer against a dogged detective in a protracted game of cat and mouse is too hard to resist, especially if you are good enough at your craft to finesse a basic problem of credibility: Can savage lunacy and chess-grandmaster cunning really coexist in the same brain? To put it another way, how many Hannibal the Cannibals will readers, er, swallow?
The serial-killer theme may be getting tired, but to his credit, John Hart reduces it to one strand among many in his new novel, “Redemption Road.” The setting is a small city in North Carolina. The protagonist is police detective Elizabeth Black, who has been put on suspension because she appears to have used excessive force — 18 bullets — in killing two men in the basement where they were raping and torturing an 18-year-old girl. “Hero Cop or Angel of Death?” a newspaper headline asks.
In addition to the shame she has brought upon their profession, Liz’s colleagues have another reason to resent her. She still insists on the innocence of Adrian Wall, a fellow officer whom she once idolized but who was convicted of murdering a woman in a ritualized way. (There appears to be nothing on Earth that officers want more than for a wrapped-up case to stay trussed.) Alas, just as Adrian finishes serving his time and arrives back in town, the serial killer strikes again. Besides sexual chemistry, Liz and Adrian share a reluctance to tell the truth about the incidents that have brought them under suspicion, and their motives for silence are the same: protecting someone else.
Liz’s campaign to clear Adrian is hampered by her suspension and her sizable shoulder chip. She has alienated her father, a rigid-minded minister; most of her fellow officers; and the brutal warden of the prison in which Adrian was confined. On the other hand, she has lavished motherly affection on 14-year-old Gideon, the vengeance-seeking son of the woman whom Adrian was convicted of killing, and Channing, the girl whose rape occasioned all those gunshots. Liz’s life has become so operatically complex that her partner-in-abeyance remarks, “You’re in a strange place,” and readers may find themselves silently mouthing, “I’ll say!”
The complications kept piling up until, for me at least, the suspense began to shift. I wasn’t all that interested in whodunit and what would become of the buried treasure. (Did I forget to mention that treasure? Well, as you might imagine, several characters would do anything to get their mitts on it.) What really concerned me was whether Hart — best known for such books as “The King of Lies” and “The Last Child” — could possibly draw the disparate parts of his story together into a satisfying whole.
The answer, I’m sorry to say, is no. By the end of “Redemption Road,” the landscape is littered with bodies like a revenge-tragedy stage, verisimilitude lies bleeding — and the serial killer’s identity has been obvious for quite some time.
The book contains some powerful stuff, above all the depiction of a rape’s aftermath (not the rape of Channing but of someone else whose identity I shouldn’t give away). The crime was committed decades ago, but neither victim nor assailant can get over it because, living in the same city, they are bound to run into each other from time to time. Granting autonomy to perpetrator and victim, Hart handles their fraught relationship with sensitivity and insight. Mostly, however, the characters serve as puppets, required to dance as their strings are pulled and sometimes — such is the density of the narrative maze in which they must maneuver — getting in one another’s way.
Stripped of two or three subplots, “Redemption Road” might make a taut and believable novel. I wish it had been given that chance.
Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World. He lives in Asheville, N.C.
By John Hart
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 417 pp. $27.99