James Andrus is the pen name of an active law enforcement officer working in the Southeast. As a result, his debut novel is infused with a real-world, over-the-shoulder view into the gritty, often politically incorrect world of criminal investigation and law enforcement. Set in a Jacksonville, Florida, that has all of its warts on display, THE PERFECT WOMAN combines a chilling plotline with memorable characters, both good and bad, who command and demand undivided attention from first page to last.
Detective John Stallings, the primary protagonist of THE PERFECT WOMAN, is a 16-year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Stallings is assigned to the missing persons division, specializing in juveniles, runaways or otherwise. His presence in that department is motivated in no small part by the fact that his own daughter, Jeanie, is the subject of an unsolved missing person investigation. Her disappearance takes its toll on his family, as does his work schedule; the man is driven by --- almost obsessed with --- his job, even as he tries to be the best husband and father he can be. But a case that ends for Stallings at a down heel motel also sparks the beginning of a new case. Stallings makes a grisly discovery that results in his transfer --- with Patty Levine, his partner --- to homicide for the purpose of apprehending a chilling killer who quickly becomes known as the Bag Man.
The reader is introduced to the Bag Man almost immediately. He is William Dremmel, a classic underachiever whose part-time jobs at a community college and in a pharmacy provide him with plenty of opportunities not only to hide in plain sight but also to select and entrap his victims. Dremmel, who lives with and is nominally the caretaker of his disabled mother, is fascinated by the effects that pharmaceutical drugs have upon women of a certain age and body type who he chillingly refers to as his “girlfriends.” Andrus, who draws his story from real cases, presents a chilling portrait here. Dremmel obviously knows right from wrong --- he takes great and clever pains not to get caught --- but it is obvious from the beginning that the boy is off his feed.
The addicting element of THE PERFECT WOMAN, however, is the investigation. Stallings is hamstrung to some extent by the glory-hogging detective in charge of the investigation, as well as an internal affairs investigator who has had it in for him for years. Stallings and the team rely on doggedness and determination to find and then follow Dremmel’s trail. Some of their evidence is obtained through forensic science, some on expended shoe leather, and some on luck. With regard to the latter, nothing falls into the detectives’ laps. Some clues materialize as the result of Stallings’s habit of paying forward on the street; his reputation as a very tough but fair cop who is trustworthy holds him in good stead. Other leads don’t seem like leads at all but for Stallings’s street savvy. Add an interesting supporting cast, down to the most minor player, and you have what may well be the first great beach read of this summer.
THE PERFECT WOMAN is complete in itself, but Andrus leaves enough lines dangling in the water at its conclusion to hook readers into anticipating the next Stallings book. Let’s hope that we don’t have to wait an entire year for its publication.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 17, 2011