Inmate 1577: A Karen Vail Novel
I just love picking up a book where everything (plot, characterization, pacing and general readability) comes together, so that the act of reading is more than mere entertainment --- it becomes a compulsion. INMATE 1577, Alan Jacobson’s latest and best Karen Vail novel, is one of those books, demanding to be read slowly but in one sitting.
"Whatever the future might hold for Vail, INMATE 1577 is a wonderful addition to the series that will satisfy loyal readers and provide those new to these thrillers with an excellent place to climb aboard."
The story proceeds along two narrative tracks that alternate throughout the course of the book and are equally compelling. One occurs in the present, with the take-no-prisoners Vail on assignment in San Francisco where her skills as an FBI profiler are on loan to the San Francisco police department. An elderly woman is found raped and brutally murdered in her bed, while her husband’s body is found strung up and on display at one of the city’s most revered landmarks a short time later. Vail wastes no time alienating everyone around her, even as she begins her expert analysis. One set of bodies is quickly followed by another set, with additional victims to follow. Worse, the murderer knows things about Vail that he shouldn’t know and seems to be taking great joy in taunting her with his knowledge, even as he leaves cryptic text messages that leave her and the police running in circles.
The second narrative follows events that took place roughly between 1957 and 1963 involving a man named Walton MacNally, whose world turns to dust when his wife is brutally murdered. MacNally is accused of the crime, but acquitted. Yet the accusation hangs over him so that his life is forever changed, following him and his seven-year-old son from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, where MacNally’s efforts to begin a new life fail when his past catches up with him. Unable to obtain and keep a job, MacNally reluctantly turns to robbery to support himself and his son, further exacerbating his poor judgment by using his son as a getaway driver.
When MacNally is ultimately captured, he finds himself sentenced to a prison term in Leavenworth, where the environs are such that he must kill or be killed. He soon acquires a reputation as a problem convict, which is cemented when he becomes involved in a failed escape plan. As a result of his efforts, MacNally is transferred to the infamous Alcatraz Prison on Devil’s Island, where his history seems doomed to repeat itself.
So what is the connection between these two storylines? The answer is part of the attraction of this mystery within a mystery. But once that is resolved --- a good three-fourths of the way through the book --- Jacobson lets the plot take another twist or two, relying on some subtle misdirection and character development to carry the story through to a conclusion shot through with irony. The best part of the novel, however, is the description of prison life in general and Alcatraz in particular. Jacobson demonstrates that he engaged in fastidious research in writing the book, yet does not let the narrative get bogged down in it. The result is a first-rate page-turner that you will want to read slowly, particularly to savor Jacobson’s descriptions of Alcatraz and its history. And Vail? By story’s end, it becomes evident that Jacobson has some new plans for her. She may well come to regret ruffling the feathers of the San Francisco police. Or not.
Whatever the future might hold for Vail, INMATE 1577 is a wonderful addition to the series that will satisfy loyal readers and provide those new to these thrillers with an excellent place to climb aboard.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 20, 2011