A hit or miss

Jeffrey Deaver introduced us to a truly unique detective protagonist in his 1997 novel, The Bone Collector. Lincoln Rhyme used to be a forensic analyst, but he’s left quadriplegic after an accident. All he can move is his head.

He’s almost decided to kill himself, when he’s offered the case of a gruesome murder, the work of a possible serial killer. Rhyme finds that the cop who managed the crime scene (an ex-model named Amelia Sachs) is extremely competent, and co-opts her as his feet on the ground. Rhyme and Sachs then track the serial killer successfully, while enlightening the reading audience about the finer points of forensic analysis.

That was then. 16 years on, The Kill Room is Deaver’s 10th novel featuring the duo. And while Deaver’s skill at creating suspense and twists has not diminished, there are a few trademarks to these books that will annoy the loyal reader, as he works his way through this latest case.

The book starts with a murder in a hotel room in a Caribbean country. An activist is giving an interview to a reporter, when a sniper’s bullet smashes through the window and kills him. The flying broken glass also kills the reporter and a bodyguard. It appears to be the work of a drug cartel, until a district attorney comes to Rhyme with a leaked secret document — a kill order for the activist. Apparently, there’s an overzealous official in a clandestine government agency, who is ordering hits on suspected anti-American activists. Now the DA wants Rhyme to assemble a set of evidence against the official.

The task feels nearly impossible to start with — the crime scene is in a different country, with uncooperative officials. There are no details of the murder itself, next to nothing about the accused, and only publicly available details about the victim. Where would a forensic analyst even start? But Deaver builds up an intriguing storyline, where acquiring the clues is as interesting a process as analysing them.

For example, the bullet that was used to commit the murder is only examined about halfway through the book. Three pages of detailed analysis follows, deducing the type, caliber and likely manufacturer of the gun. Of course, a few pages later, the conclusions drawn are all overturned and everything now points towards a very different kind of killing.

By the time the book is three-fourths done, you’re no longer sure whether the victim was innocent, whether it was a sniper, or whether the official really ordered it — in short, of nothing at all. Deaver then goes on to spin the story on its head a few more times before coming to rest in a totally unexpected place. If this wasn’t so engagingly written, I’d call it an Abbas-Mustan film.

This tendency of pulling out the rug ever so often has become a Deaver trademark now, and so regular readers will just read, without making any conjectures as to the conclusion. Every assumption you start with will be questioned, modified and overturned. As opposed to the older ‘whodunit’ style of writing, where all the facts are on the table and just needed to be put together differently, Deaver keeps bringing in brand-new information every so often that changes everything.

There is also a marked change in the scope of the Rhyme stories. The scope of The Bone Collector was smaller, confined to a single city and a fairly focused investigation. By now, though, the stories have gone beyond these limits. The Kill Room doesn’t have a single person as the villain — it’s a government programme. It also unfolds over three different countries, takes international terrorism and government programmes as its background, and features multiple police forces. And somehow, Rhyme is still in time to save the day for all the big targets.

Deaver fans will attest to the painstaking detail with which he walks us through the forensic process — he brings in concepts that feel real to a layman while not talking down to him. This has led to his reputation as one of the best of the current crop of crime writers, winning awards multiple times.

Of course, some of the analysis is too good to be true — identifying all sorts of exotic plants and food ingredients from spectroscopy and memory is a Sherlock-holmes-level feat, not the preserve of the usual lab assistant. As an Indian, one cannot help but wish this incredible-sounding analysis really possible, and that it was applied to current crime cases in the news, like the Arushi Talwar case. Ah, if only.

Should you read it? Yes, if you don’t mind some gore, and enjoy a solidly built thriller with twists and turns. Better read The Bone Collector first, though, to know the characters better.

The Kill Room
Jeffrey Deaver
Hodder & Stoughton
2013, pp 496
695

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