Richard Montanari has been around for a little while, writing interesting, even riveting novels that peel back the dark and sordid side of the human psyche. Nothing he has previously done, however, will prepare readers for THE ROSARY GIRLS, his latest novel.
THE ROSARY GIRLS introduces Philadelphia Police Homicide detective Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano. Byrne, the veteran, has a high rate of solved cases --- that's what he's supposed to do, but as we quickly learn at the beginning of the novel, his methods are, uh, a bit old-school. In other words, he's effective. There is, however, a price. Byrne isn't broken, but he's badly bent. He's a seething mass of contradictions, all of which rub up against each other, hard and mean, with every move he makes. Naturally he's partnered up with Balzano, the rookie who has an approach to things that is a bit gentler, though she is certainly capable of meeting force with force --- she is, among other things, an amateur boxer in her spare time. The end result is that Balzano could not have a better teacher, and Byrne could not have a better partner.
Balzano and Byrne have their hands full when a fiend begins a ritualistic murder spree, killing Catholic high school girls and leaving them provocatively posed and unspeakably mutilated around the city of Philadelphia. The cops are trying to figure out what the common element is that links these particular girls. Montanari does a great job of plotting here. While the reader gets into the killer's head, it doesn't really help, and ultimately we don't know much more than the police do until the apocalyptic conclusion.
A warning here: Montanari will take you on a tour of the human psyche out where the buses have never run and where the sun has never shone. By the time you're halfway through this novel you might be checking to see if that cloistered nunnery in town is accepting any new novitiates and making an application for that daughter of yours.
The world that Montanari paints in THE ROSARY GIRLS is frightening, but it is also a world where a cop like Byrne is badly needed. Byrne and Balzano are tough and tender, with their methods complementing each other rather than clashing. Byrne's methodology gets him in trouble on a number of different levels. As a result he must engage in more of the same off-the-books tactics to resolve the situation. This creates a vicious cycle that doesn't leave much room for redemption. But is redemption necessary, or even appropriate? Byrne engages in some self-destructive behavior, but he gets the bad guys off the board, individuals who would be processed through the system for yet another go-round if they faced any justice at all. Montanari is overtly nonjudgmental on this, preferring to use Balzano as a tough but tender good cop to Byrne's bad but brutally effective cop. The result is a thoroughly engrossing work that is driven by plot, character development, and an edge-of-your-seat denouement.
THE ROSARY GIRLS fully reveals the dark talent that Montanari has hinted at in his previous work. This man is really, really good; he even infuses new life into the "dark house in the middle of the storm with the power out, with the murderer and the girl inside" conclusion, making it so exciting that you'll feel as if you're encountering it for the first time. I was on the edge of my seat, and didn't get off of it until I went around and checked to make sure that all the doors and windows were locked. Not a book for the faint-of-heart, THE ROSARY GIRLS writes its own new definition for the term "thriller."
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011
The Rosary Girls: A Novel of Suspense