John Katzenbach is arguably the master of the psychological thriller. There is plenty of objective evidence for that proposition: his novels have garnered two prestigious literary awards, not to mention a couple of Edgar nominations and a passel of movie adaptations. Each one of his works has been informed with an intellectual, learned voice while being grounded in a plausible, real-world foundation. The same --- and more --- can be said of THE WRONG MAN, Katzenbach's newest and best novel.
There are a number of factors that contribute to making THE WRONG MAN Katzenbach's most readable and accessible work to date, perfect in nearly every way. The plot is strong, riveting and terrifying, given its up close and personal manifestation of romantic obsession. A young woman named Ashley Freeman momentarily becomes involved with Michael O'Connell, a violent mass of contradictory loose ends and crossed wires who at the same time is possessed with a canny and savage intelligence. Ashley attempts to terminate the relationship, which O'Connell will not tolerate; he continues to pursue Ashley, both literally and figuratively.
Ashley's parents, divorced for several years and still struggling with the issues that ended their own relationship, mean well but are woefully ill-prepared to assist their daughter when she comes to them for help. Scott Freeman is a college professor whose street smarts do not extend much farther than the walls of his classroom. Sally Freeman-Richards is an attorney toiling at the low end of a divorce and real estate practice that requires little heavy physical or intellectual lifting other than by rote. Sally's relationship with Hope Frazier, her life partner, is fraying around the edges for reasons that neither woman is able to articulate or prevent. Sally's reliance on the rules and order of law is of little use when dealing with O'Connell, who uses and skirts the system with impunity. As Scott, Sally and Hope come together uneasily to develop and execute an effective plan to deal with the situation, they slowly begin to realize that the conventional order of their respective lives will not provide them with a solution.
The beauty of THE WRONG MAN, however, is not the implementation of their plan, or even how well or badly it works. While those factors would have been enough to create an engrossing story, what ultimately drives this tale at lightning speed from page to page is the quiet but electrifying interplay among the characters as they slowly work toward a common goal. As their individual and occasionally secretive plans threaten to inadvertently subvert it, O'Connell's coldly brilliant actions play havoc on each of their lives.
This is the perfect contemporary bogeyman story. People like O'Connell exist; as I write this, the news wires are reporting that a popular 19-year-old film and music starlet is taking action against a man whose behavior, as described, sounds uncannily like O'Connell's. THE WRONG MAN may be fiction, but it is all too real.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011