At this point in his career, Peter Blauner seems to be incapable of writing badly. His most recent book, THE LAST GOOD DAY, was one of the first post-9/11 novels to be set in New York, wisely utilizing the terrorist attacks as a quiet, almost unobtrusive, but nonetheless catalytic backdrop for what occurs in the story. SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS, Blauner's new novel, surpasses his last --- a seemingly impossible feat --- by incorporating Blauner's trademark strengths into a study of personalities and motives. The characters and the mystery in which they find themselves involved jostle and jockey for the reader's attention from first page to last, with the resulting work ultimately transcending the whodunit genre.
Let there be no misunderstanding: SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS is a genuine mystery, a true conundrum, linking two murders occurring twenty years apart in an unexpected way. Manhattan homicide detective Francis X. Loughlin solved his first big murder case in 1983, wringing a confession to the slaying of a young physician named Allison Wallis out of Julian Vega, a frightened 17-year-old whose promising future is instantaneously derailed. Some twenty years later, Vega is released from prison early when he is granted the right to a new trial, and another young physician is murdered almost simultaneously. Loughlin is sure that Vega is the killer, but when he alleges a DNA test to confirm this, he is horrified to discover that the DNA of the murderer recovered at the second crime scene does not belong to Vega, but to Wallis.
As I said, there is a genuine --- an ingenious --- mystery here. Quite honestly, there were times when I thought Blauner had painted himself into a corner, yet the answer is an unusual but satisfying one, wherein each character remains strongly, even stubbornly, true to themselves. Again, SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS is a character study. One of Blauner's greatest strengths is his uncanny, almost chilling ability to get into the hearts and minds of a number of quirky characters who are wildly diverse from each other. The main focus divides between Loughlin, who is dealing with an insidious vision problem that all too shortly will blind him, and Vega, who is having difficulty dealing with a world that has moved dramatically away from him during his incarceration. The minor characters, however, are equally as fascinating.
So it is that one of the most memorable moments of the novel is given over to Elaine, Allison's mother. Elaine is an author of children's books, and a particular vignette dealing with the works of Hans Christian Andersen, though only a couple of pages long, is alone almost worth the price of the book. It was responsible for hanging me up for hours. I kept reading it over and over, returning to it even after I had moved onward into the remainder of the book.
Blauner, like all master writers, is capable of exploiting (wonderfully) the commonplace and ordinary into a memorable occurrence. To give but one example, there is a description of a bat mitzvah here that is only a few sentences long, and it's perfect: at once funny, tragic and maybe a little frightening too. And then there is a defining moment when Loughlin sees an El train go by the North Manhattan Homicide Task Force division headquarters, and…well, you must read it. There is also some humor, most of it dark. And let's not even talk about the bombs that Blauner starts dropping a little over halfway through the book --- bombs that pop and explode and resonate backward and forward along the plot line.
There are a number of suspense authors doing impressive work right now, but only a very few whose writing is approaching the quality of Blauner's in SLIPPING INTO DARKNESS. As hard as it may seem to believe, we could have one of the best books of the year already with us!
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011