Let’s start this review with a rundown of what author John Katzenbach is not: he is not prolific. Twelve books published in 30 years or so does not put him in, say, the territory of the publish-annually-or-perish authors. What Katzenbach is, though, is one heck of a storyteller, and WHAT COMES NEXT is his best work to date, pitch- and letter-perfect from beginning to end and all points in between.
"I raced through this book, not even pausing to involuntarily shout 'Gosh darn it!' 'Shoot!' and words to that effect. I read a ton of novels in this genre and thought I had the ending figured out within the first fourth of the book or so. Wrong. Even if you are a better guesser than I am, you will be entranced with WHAT COMES NEXT."
Katzenbach lets us know early on that things aren’t going to end well. The novel begins with a very bad, immutable situation that is certain to get worse. Adrian Thomas is a professor emeritus at a New England university who gets some rough news within the first page or so of WHAT COMES NEXT: he has a rare and incurable illness named “Lewy body dementia.” It is even worse than it sounds: Thomas is set to experience physical and mental deterioration over a period of a few short years. It’s not that life is wonderful for him anyway; he is predeceased by his wife, son and younger brother, and is living a rather lonely existence. Thomas goes home and is set to quietly but firmly end things on his own terms when he witnesses what he believes to be, and what in fact is, the abduction of a teenage girl off of the street. He has few details and does not actually witness the act itself, but he knows that something is wrong.
And something definitely is. The girl who is kidnapped is 16-year-old Jennifer Riggins, a two-time runaway whose third-time’s-the-charm exit from her troubled household is interrupted by a chillingly amoral couple who run a website known as “What Comes Next.” Riggins has the extreme misfortune to be cast in their latest, real-time, online drama. These folks are very good at what they do. Terri Collins, the local police detective who has corralled Jennifer twice before, is initially convinced that Jennifer is up to her old tricks and that Thomas is a well-intended but misguided older man.
Still, Thomas persists, and with a bit of academic insight and a lot of stubbornness slowly turns Collins around. He collects some allies --- all of them somewhat unexpected --- along the way, but it’s a tough and uphill slog. What is worse is that Thomas, Collins, and their allies are in a race against time. Riggins does not have very long at all, before the question of “What Comes Next” is answered with finality. Hidden from view, and with very few clues, Thomas --- an older academian whose disease process is already affecting him --- is her only faint hope.
I raced through this book, not even pausing to involuntarily shout “Gosh darn it!” “Shoot!” and words to that effect. I read a ton of novels in this genre and thought I had the ending figured out within the first fourth of the book or so. Wrong. Even if you are a better guesser than I am, you will be entranced with WHAT COMES NEXT. Don’t miss it.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 27, 2012