Forensic artist Annie Kingston has a serial killer on her hands ---- hands that have no clue what the suspect looks like. But people who live in the area where the killer has been stalking female prey and dumping their bodies are in a near panic; the women are fearing for their lives and everyone is demanding that the authorities do more to catch the monster in their midst. The pressure on Annie is enormous. Not only is she called to each gruesome crime scene to sketch the faces of unidentified victims; she's also drawn into the investigation on a personal level when both a suspect and a body show up on her property.
As it turns out, these crimes are highly personal with regard to Annie. Her high-profile status, which had been secured in an earlier investigation (and, presumably, an earlier book), has placed her squarely in the killer's sights. What's more, her newfound faith in Christ rankles the killer to no end. Between each chapter, Collins gives the perpetrator an opportunity to reveal the chilling thoughts and motives that drive the violence, and it becomes evident early on that resentment toward the church and Christians is a prime factor behind the killing spree.
As if that wasn't enough, Annie's drug-abusing son is giving her fits, and a neighbor, the unmarried father of her daughter's best friend, is quietly and slowly revealing his attraction to her. Her life is complicated, to be sure, but as the investigation heats up, neither Annie nor Collins's readers can possibly be prepared for just how complicated it's going to get.
Despite all the big and little red herrings that crop up as the plot progresses, about a third of the way through the book I was sure I knew who the killer was, and it was not someone you'd ordinarily suspect. Much to my utter delight, I was wrong --- not even close, in fact. I can't begin to describe the pleasure I get from being mistaken about the doer when I'm reading a murder mystery, especially if the surprise ending doesn't feel contrived. That was the case here; Collins so adeptly disguises the killer's identity until the bitter, strychnine-laced end that when it was revealed, I felt simultaneously stunned and satisfied rather than tricked and cheated.
Collins also serves up some surprising insights and images that are only marginally related to the main plot but provide depth and texture to the overall story. In a scene in which Annie's daughter and her friend are simultaneously grilling cheese sandwiches and grilling Annie about another possible victim, Collins describes the resiliency of teenagers through Annie's thoughts: "Somehow they managed to turn their attention back to the priorities of the moment --- to cooking their sandwiches, sliding them onto plates, fetching drinks. Even as they pumped me for information about Karen --- not all of which I could give --- their demeanor settled like cellophane under heat, shrink-wrapped to fit this new reality." Images like that appear often enough to set Collins's writing apart from that of so many one-dimensional suspense authors.
Now to the faith part. As a new believer, Annie has a lot to learn, and this provides Collins with an opportunity to enlighten her readers as well. Her writing is not what you'd call preachy, but neither is the faith angle subtle. The primary "teaching" comes from a taped sermon that Annie listens to in her car, a slight variation on a device used by Christian writers who make their faith-related points through sermons delivered in church. To her credit, Collins does a good job of weaving the faith element in as a part of everyday life; it never felt intrusive or tacked on as an afterthought. Plus, it was pivotal to the plot, which made it even more appropriate for her to focus on.
For fans of Christian suspense, this one is up there in the stratosphere. In fact, I'm fairly confident that Collins has it in her to give an author like Patricia Cornwell a run for her money someday. She has that kind of potential.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on March 22, 2005