PHANTOM INSTINCT is the latest from Austin-based writer Meg Gardiner, a stand-alone title following her previous successes with both the Jo Beckett and Evan Delaney novels (the latter series earned her a much-coveted Edgar Award). Gardiner knows how to write a thriller and understands how to keep plot elements operating at the height of suspense. What she does particularly well is write chases --- typically of the protagonist being pursued by the antagonist, and vice versa. There is much of that in her new book.
The novel opens up with a white-hot event --- a tragedy of such magnitude that the lasting damage done to the survivors lingers long after the dust has settled. Harper Flynn tends bar at a trendy L.A. nightclub. While conversing with her boyfriend Drew, a club regular, she notices two shady-looking characters. They end up opening fire on the club, injuring and killing several people.While panic ensues, Harper notices a third individual who puts the finishing touches on this dark event. This villain tosses a deadly Molotov cocktail in the club, and the firestorm brings down a good part of the building as the flames consume the room. In the rubble, Drew is killed while deflecting the blow from Harper, saving her life.
"PHANTOM INSTINCT is a wild ride that works best when Harper and Aiden are interacting. They are such complex and unique characters that their scenes together literally jump off the page."
Also present in the club at the time of the attack are two members of the law enforcement community, each of whom did what they could to save people and apprehend those responsible for the tragedy. However, Erika Sorenstam and Aiden Garrison of the LA Sheriff's Department ultimately are unable to nail anyone for the crime.
PHANTOM INSTINCT then jumps ahead in time nearly a year into the future. Harper is attending a dedication in the name of her deceased boyfriend and spending time bonding with his teenage sister, Piper. Meanwhile, Harper thinks she spies a shadowy figure in the background and believes this to be the third suspect from the club tragedy --- someone the media and local law enforcement fails to recognize as having any part in the incident.
Harper knows there were two officers at the club that night. She gets nowhere with Erika, so she pins her hopes on convincing Aiden of her theories on the third person. The problem is that Aiden is not on active duty. Having been injured in a prior case, he now suffers from a rare condition known as Fregoli syndrome. The blunt force trauma he withstood to his head makes it occasionally difficult for him to recognize other people. To make matters more complicated, he can convince himself that the person he’s looking at is a criminal he’s pursuing, and his reactions can be so unsettling that this is the reason for his leave from active duty.
Aiden learns of Harper's own issues, which involve her having a juvenile record during a time in her youth when she ran with a gang of dangerous criminals. She has worked hard to remake herself and even spent time as a cryptologic technician for the U.S. intelligence community. Can an ex-cop and a former thief work together to solve a crime in which the suspects are completely unknown and unrecognizable?
As the case moves forward, the book jumps into overdrive as some villainous individuals from Harper's youth resurface. Not only may they be behind the club tragedy, they may have been targeting Harper. Now, Piper has been kidnapped, and Harper and Aiden will need to convince law enforcement that this danger is real before they all perish.
PHANTOM INSTINCT is a wild ride that works best when Harper and Aiden are interacting. They are such complex and unique characters that their scenes together literally jump off the page. Buckle up for an exciting thrill-ride of a novel that holds surprises around every turn.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on July 3, 2014