There are two points, I think, during THE SERPENT'S KISS where
it is immediately obvious that Mark T. Sullivan has developed into
one of our best contemporary writers. The first is a fairly sedate
moment, a little over one-third of the way through the book, and
involves a fairly sedate episode --- an account of a dinner (a
date, actually, though they don't really call it that) between San
Diego homicide detective Seamus Moynihan and Professor Susan
Dahoney, author of THE SECOND WOMAN. The dinner is not necessarily
pivotal to the main plot. However, Sullivan sets it up so well,
stressing the details where he needs to while leaving other things
to the imagination that one sits up and realizes that this is a
first-rate craftsman at work. It's not that THE SERPENT'S KISS
isn't uniformly great from the first page; it's just that the
suspense factor is ratcheted so high that it's easy to overlook
just what a great stylist Sullivan is.
The second point? It's a little over halfway through the book, when
Sullivan switches locales from the deceptively beautiful streets of
San Diego to the backwoods of rural Alabama. Sullivan captures the
area and some of its residents so perfectly that you would swear
you were reading a diary of his own experiences. And maybe you
are…you never know.
But the story! Ah, let's not forget the story! THE SERPENT'S KISS
begins with a naked victim tied to a bed and subjected to a slow,
excruciatingly painful death by snakebites. The murderer leaves an
obscure quotation written on a mirror, but there almost no other
clues. The investigation follows a number of twists and turns that
include Internet chat rooms, television show hosts, captive reptile
enthusiasts, and rapper crime lords --- but each potential thread
of the investigation results in a dead end. Moynihan, and the San
Diego police force, are in a quandary, one that is made worse while
the killer strikes again and again, seemingly able to roam at will.
The investigation appears to hit an insurmountable roadblock until
a similar murder that occurred decades before in rural Alabama
seems to provide the motivation behind the murders and the identity
of the murderer. But Sullivan and THE SERPENT'S KISS ultimately
keep the reader, as well as Moynihan, guessing until the very
Moynihan is a sympathetic and believable character who has just
enough trouble balancing the professional and the personal to seem
all too real. If by the conclusion of THE SERPENT'S KISS you want
him back, you'll be happy to know that this is only the first in a
series of what promises to be riveting books featuring Moynihan.
Oh, one other thing. Given the phallic imagery associated with
snakes, THE SERPENT'S KISS is somewhat erotic, to say the least.
And there's a money paragraph or two near the conclusion that is a
definite water cooler moment. It'll have you checking the bed
before the lights go out for at least a few nights --- at least.
But THE SERPENT'S KISS is worth it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011