We have a huge backlog of wonderful reviews right now, so this week we’re giving you even more weekly reviews. The great film reviewer Jonathan Rosenbaum once commented that “it’s pretty safe to say that there are more serial killers in movies than there are in real life” and puzzled over why so many viewers are drawn to movies about serial killers. I don’t presume to have an answer, but I find his observation to be fascinating, especially when I look at the three books in review today. These books present three very different takes on serial killers, and each might lead us to a different conclusion about why serial killers remain so popular.
Warren Ellis’s Gun Machine is perhaps the most straightforward of the three, looking at first glance like a standard police procedural. It is distinguished from the pack of serial killer novels and police procedurals by its incredibly unique villain, whom the reader has access to almost from the beginning. He calls himself “the hunter” and seems to have a spiritual or metaphysical connection to the island of Manhattan (he calls it Mannahatta) from before Europeans inhabited it. What’s more, though he is an obscenely prolific serial killers (with hundreds of victims), both the hero and the reader realize fairly early in the novel that the murders themselves are secondary to the hunter–his primary motivation is to imbue the guns he uses to kill with mystical importance. Here, then, the use of a serial killer is fairly incidental. Ellis is much more interested in links between pre- and post-European America, as well as (as you’ll see in the review below) notions of power and influence.
Meanwhile, in William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, the polarities are inverted: whereas in Gun Machine, the presumed genre of police procedural is undermined by the fact that there is no real mystery for the reader to solve, in Ordinary Grace, the presumed genre is a literary novel of small-town life—focusing neither on the serial killer nor a detective, but on a teenage boy in the town afflicted by the killer–but hiding within it is a very real murder mystery. Again, though, the fact that serial killers may or may not be common in real life is incidental to this novel, which is instead focused on its young hero’s growing maturity, and how ordinary people react to extraordinary situations. Ordinary Grace is a very special book, and is our starred review for the week.
Finally, we have Jennifer McMahon’s The One I Left Behind, which is certainly the most typical serial killer story, of the kind Rosenbaum was referring to above, and here the answer to “why a serial killer?” seems to be pure and simply for the great suspense. In this novel, the serial killer in question has been presumably dormant for two decades, but when he strikes again (and when one of his presumed victims turns up alive) the whole case is ripped open. McMahon is therefore able to create much of the novel’s suspense through a dual timeline, alternating between the killings in 1985 and those in the present. At the same time, McMahon holds most closely to the mystery genre by inviting the reader to question the motivations and possibly guilt of nearly every character in the novel.
ELLIS, Warren. Gun Machine : A Novel. 320p. Mulholland:Little, Brown. Jan. 2013. Tr $25.99. ISBN 9780316187404.
Adult/High School–In the aftermath of a shooting that ends with his partner murdered, Manhattan Detective John Tallow comes across an apartment filled with hundreds of guns, all of which turn out to have been used in an unsolved homicide in the last few decades. As punishment for reopening so many cases, Tallow is given no leave to recuperate from his partner’s death and is put on the case with only the help of two low-level Crime Scene Unit techs. While Tallow and the CSUs try to unravel the case, Ellis gives readers glimpses of the man at the heart of the mystery, a man who calls himself “the hunter” and seems to have some mystical, possibly supernatural, connection with the American Indians who originally inhabited the island of Mannahatta. As Tallow begins to realize that the guns have a ritualistic significance to the killer–each having been chosen carefully for its intended victim–readers realize that the hunter will stop at nothing to retrieve his guns, starting with murdering Tallow. Meanwhile, the threads of the crimes begin to coalesce around three very influential men. Ellis’s powerful prose–particularly his descriptions of the hunter’s killings–and propulsive storytelling keep this novel moving at full speed. Meanwhile, his characterizations are strong and accurate, even leaving a certain level of sympathy for the villain. And the hunter’s peculiar connection with ancient American Indians is more than enough to separate this novel from the overcrowded market of well-written police procedurals.–Mark Flowers, John F. Kennedy Library, Vallejo, CA
* KRUEGER, William Kent. Ordinary Grace. 306p. Atria: S. & S. Mar. 2013. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781451645828.
Adult/High School–For Frank Drum, 13, and his brother Jake, 11, the neighborhoods of New Bremen, Minnesota–The Flats, snug along the Minnesota River and The Heights, rising above–are extensions of their own backyard. Nowhere could be safer or more intriguing for these two sons of the town’s Methodist minister. It is the summer of 1961, and while America is on the cusp of social upheaval, no one could anticipate the violence that would accompany change. Neither is Frank prepared for the death that will visit his town in the form of murder, suicide, and accident. It begins with the death of a young boy hit by a train on the trestle over the river. There is suspicion of foul play, but no proof. When the boys later find a vagrant dead beside the river, local police begin to link the two deaths with a Native American drifter. Frank protects the suspect from a manhunt and is then devastated by guilt when his older sister goes missing. The mysteries deepen as entangled relationships are exposed, often through Frank’s Hardy-Boy-like eavesdropping. Frank feels compelled to prove that he is adult enough to fix what is wrong with his community and his family, yet too naïve to comprehend the consequences of his choices. Only through the graceful insights of his younger brother do he and his family find peace. The page-turning urgency of this mystery will engage teens who will also appreciate the array of small-town characters struggling with incomprehensible tragedy.–John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY
MCMAHON, Jennifer. The One I left Behind. 422p. Morrow. Jan. 2013. Tr $14.99. ISBN 978-0-06-212255-1.
Adult/High School–When Reggie was 13, her mother was assumed to be the fourth and final victim of a serial killer, but her body was never found. Twenty-five years later, Vera shows up in a homeless shelter, and Reggie returns to Brighton Falls to care for her. Old friends reappear, old wounds are opened, and the serial killer takes a new victim. Much of the novel’s considerable suspense is exaggerated by the book’s structure–alternating chapters set in 1985, when Reggie was a teen and the serial killer was first active with those set in the present. At the same time, McMahon convincingly portrays every primary character–all introduced early in the novel–as a potential killer. And she never wastes a plot point, as nearly everything falls into place by the conclusion. Serial-killer stories always have appeal to certain teens, and this one manages to have a gory plotline (the murderer cuts off his victims’ right hand and drops it off in town before killing the person a few days later) while describing very little actual gore or violence. Great characters and great suspense make this a page turner. –Jamie Watson, Baltimore County Public Library