A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS, originally published in England in 2006, was the first of three R.J. Ellory books to be re-released by Overlook Press in the States. THE ANNIVERSARY MAN is the second and affirms Ellory’s title as monarch of psychological crime thrillers. A SIMPLE ACT OF VIOLENCE, an exposé of covert operations, greed and insidious Washington corruption during mid-term elections, will be released later in 2010. Saving the best for last?
"In this bleak examination of murder and hope, Ellory’s herrings are as red and sticky as caramelized apples, and there are more dead-ends than Manhattan riverside real estate."
At age 16 in 1984, “John Costello was a shy boy, a quiet boy.” He and first love Nadia McGowan are brutally attacked by the “Hammer of God” serial killer; he survived with a fractured skull, and she (debatably) was not so fortunate. Flash forward to 2006. Costello is a crime scene researcher for a Manhattan newspaper suffering truckloads of survivor’s guilt. He is a member of the Winterbourne Group, survivors who gather monthly to “understand and appreciate what it is that makes someone do something like this.” This meaning murder. Costello is thrown into the midst of new homicides being committed with identical scenarios on the anniversary date of each slaying, dubbed the Anniversary Murders by potty-mouthed reporter Karen Langley.
Detective Irving “had walked the edges of the abyss for some years. He recognized more of the madness with each killing.” A copycat Zodiac Killer mails a letter to The Times, creating a panic the seismic magnitude of the combined killings by Son of Sam, Jeffrey Dahmer and the Hillside Stranglers. “Ray Irving truly appreciated the depth of the abyss. The only thing preventing him from falling was a tenuous hold on reality...Worst thing of all, it seemed, was his desire to let go.” Having lost the only love in his life, Irving again feels that there is hope with Karen, surprisingly reciprocated. And not merely to glean information from the recalcitrant cop.
Costello observes the significance of the Anniversary Man’s chameleon-like MO and date each victim is killed. Though Irving initially suspects Costello's uncanny ability to know the MO before details are released, Costello explains it away by backtracking each murder to an identical date in horrific history. Then he astounds Irving with predicting likely dates for future murders, but “you start to factor in about two hundred serial murders a year spanning fifty years, then every day is going to be the anniversary of someone’s death.” When Irving muses that the Anniversary Man “wants to be as famous as the Zodiac,” Costello opines that he “wants to be Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, probably even wants to be the real Hannibal Lecter.” Understandably, “Irving’s frustration was epic.”
More than the anniversary dates, the killings themselves are replicated. When The City Herald refuses to print the Anniversary Man’s psychopathic manifesto, threats to kill a family of six are horrifically fulfilled. “[A]fter that it would get personal.” Costello goes on the lam. Does “personal” mean the anniversary of his own near-death? Or has Irving deciphered the cryptic copycat Zodiac Code? Alas, there is a “casualty of some terrible, bitter irony” that will keep readers gasping with disbelief.
Irving re-examines the first killing, teenager Mia Grant, and questions her father, Anthony. Frustrated by the lack of leads from police, Grant had hired private eye Karl Roberts. Roberts has vanished now, and Irving suspects the PI may have actually committed the homicides or is a victim, since he had delved into Mia's murder only months before cops or Costello linked it to many. To further complicate matters, Grant had an affair with one of the victims years previously. Each leg of the millipede-leads that Irving follows is crossed with the lives of victims. Thrown into the morbid mix are ghouls who collect crime scene memorabilia. Possibilities increase on a Fibonacci scale, frighteningly plausible scenarios as to how serial killers can obtain information about intended victims.
In this bleak examination of murder and hope, Ellory’s herrings are as red and sticky as caramelized apples, and there are more dead-ends than Manhattan riverside real estate. Fans of A QUIET BELIEF IN ANGELS will repeatedly take the wrong road when trying to identify the Anniversary Man. Readers who expect the amazing success of that novel to be replicated by the Brit who sets his plots in the U.S. as though he intends to recolonize for the Queen will be thrilled with this epic crime fiction novel. Written as though by a native New Yorker, it needs to be read twice --- once for vice-grip-like details, and again for nectar from the consummate wordsmith. So real is Ellory’s writing that lines between journalism and crime fiction blur.
Though his stand-alone crime thrillers grab readers by the throat and don’t let go until the last page, Detective Irving has the makings of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch on steroids, sure to be a repeat character --- and made with cinematic success into a blockbuster movie.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy (DeanMurphy@Verizon.net) on December 22, 2010