Saturday, December 10, 2016

Deeper Than the Dead

Deeper Than the Dead
by Tami Hoag
Recommended Ages: 15+

Anne Navarre is a fifth-grade teacher in Oak Knoll, California, who once aspired to be a child psychologist, until her mother died and she had to move home to take care of her cold, selfish father. Vince Leone is an FBI profiler on medical leave due to having a bullet in his head, who has come to town with half a mind to recruit an ambitious young sheriff's detective named Tony Mendez as his replacement. Between them and a few other deputies, they have to stop a serial killer who has killed at least three women, and who has already abducted his fourth victim. This creep becomes known as the See No Evil killer, because he superglues his victims' eyes and lips shut before torturing and strangling them.

Four of Anne's students found the body of Victim No. 3, gruesomely left half-buried in a wooded park. While she tries to help them deal with this disturbing discovery, they show varying types and degrees of psychological damage from the experience. Meantime, Vince's profile seems to fit the fathers of at least three of the kids - a charming dentist who has to put up with a controlling, histrionic wife; a handsome lawyer who cheats on his wife; and an abusive, woman-hating deputy whose career is all "by the book, no mercy." Worse, all three men have ties with the local women's organization, whose staff and clients seem to be the killer's prey of choice.

While the investigation is sidetracked by a trail of evidence leading to a second and unrelated killer, sending shudders through a pleasant town that only a week ago had never known a murder before, the cycle of tragedy goes into overdrive. At the center of the whirlwind are four deeply scarred children, three families being torn apart by the strain of the investigation, two lonely hearts swiftly drawn together by a May-September romance, and at least one child who is fated to learn that his (or her) idolized father is a murdering psychopath. As time runs out for the missing fourth victim, as pressure builds on both the cops and the creeps, as pits of personal and professional ruin yawn before the innocent and guilty alike, it becomes inevitable that more blood will be shed before the bad guy is caught - if, indeed, he can be stopped at all.

This is a superbly crafted mystery-thriller by the experienced author of many novels of crime and romance, including the Quaid Horses and Doucet trilogies, the Rainbow Chasers quartet, the two-book Deer Lake, Elena Estes, and Broussard & Fourcade series, and the six or seven Kovac/Liska novels, besides nine or ten stand-alone titles such as McKnight in Shining Armor and Kill the Messenger. This book, the first installment in the Oak Knoll trilogy, is a strong introduction to a group of vividly realized characters, a believably complex community in which danger simmers under a charming and safe-seeming surface, and an intriguing look back at the state of crime detection in 1985, when police had to get by without computer databases and DNA analysis. It's a detailed and compelling glimpse of police procedure in an era when fingerprints had to be compared by the human eye, when "cellular telephones" were such rare, clunky luxury items that detectives could reasonably ask why a suspect would need one, and when people frequently dropped pop-culture references about Miami Vice and Magnum, P.I..

Ah, those were the days! Instead of CSI gizmos, cops confronted by a serial killer had to rely on criminal profiling, which itself was brand-new and imperfectly trusted. But at the heart of this mystery is a young teacher's love for her kids, even for one who is horribly, irreparably damaged. She only hopes it may not be too late to help the other three. But her danger and their danger become intertwined in ways that flood the reader's inner world with sympathy, then anxiety, then downright dread. The story winds up to a terrific climax, fueled by flawless theatrics and darn-near flawless writing. My hopes are high for the sequels, Secrets to the Grave and Down the Darkest Road.

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