HUMAN REMAINS is the latest and most ambitious --- as well as the best --- of Elizabeth Haynes’s suspense novels to date. This fine psychological thriller is built on a subtle bedrock, one that begins by raising the troubling issue of social isolation not only in urban areas but also in rural ones, and moves on to even weightier issues before all is said and done.
The novel is narrated primarily in two voices. One is a woman named Annabel Hayer, an underappreciated police analyst whose social life is centered on a semi-stray cat and her mother, a co-dependent and difficult woman who is perhaps more reliant upon Annabel than she needs to be. The other primary voice belongs to a man named Colin Friedland, who is perhaps one of the most interesting and chilling antagonists I have encountered in thriller fiction this year. Colin specializes in finding lonely souls who need a push toward ending it all. He then watches them slowly deteriorate mentally and physically, all the way into decomposition. The alternating narratives between the lonely, put-upon Annabel and the diabolical Colin are occasionally interrupted by Colin’s victims, some of whom are befuddled by what is occurring (or has occurred) and others of whom seem to go willingly to their fate, having grown weary of the burden of their existence.
"I would not be surprised to see HUMAN REMAINS shortlisted when next year’s mystery award nominations are compiled. It’s a smart, engrossing mystery with a chilling villain and a heroine who is quite capable in spite of herself."
Annabel’s path first intersects with Colin’s when her next-door neighbor falls victim to him. Annabel, believing her neighbor to have moved months previously, finds the woman’s decomposing body in her home in a deathly tableau that is nightmare-inducing (you’ve been warned). Following the discovery, Annabel does a bit of research at work and finds that a disproportionate number of individuals in her area have been found in similar circumstances, dying alone, apparently of natural causes, and at home. Her theory that these people, including her deceased next-door neighbor, have been targeted is at first met with derision. A local reporter takes her seriously, though, and runs with the story. The investigation --- and Annabel’s credibility --- ratchets up considerably when a strange telephone call, initiated by Colin, alerts the authorities to the location of more bodies while adding to the puzzling mystery.
Things take an even more sinister turn when Colin targets the lonely and depressed Annabel for his next victim after she experiences a personal tragedy. At this point, the reader listens for the drum roll and anticipates the climax, but Haynes is just getting warmed up. Colin can’t be charged with anything, leaving the authorities with a conundrum: How do you convict a madman of a crime when no crime has been committed? Haynes keeps things rolling toward a frightening conclusion --- you won’t be able to read the last 50 pages or so quickly enough --- and a satisfying ending leaves some of the pieces on the board for another go-around, should the author be so inclined.
I would not be surprised to see HUMAN REMAINS shortlisted when next year’s mystery award nominations are compiled. It’s a smart, engrossing mystery with a chilling villain and a heroine who is quite capable in spite of herself. If Haynes decides to forsake stand-alone works for series titles starting with this one, I would not complain.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 23, 2013