I will read anything that John Katzenbach writes. His novels are reliably smart and intriguing, featuring characters who are off-kilter in various ways --- some in a subtle manner, others not so much --- presented in a cinematic narrative that yanks the reader in from the first page. Katzenbach’s latest offering may be his most irresistible to date.
RED 1-2-3 presents a somewhat unique antagonist, an everyman of sorts who is nondescript in every way except for two: he is, or was, a thriller novelist of somewhat modest renown, and he is a killer. He has neither written a book nor murdered anyone for several years, but is about to make up for lost time in the small New England town where he has been quietly residing with his unsuspecting wife as they both make the transition from late middle age to seasoned citizen. Calling himself the “Big Bad Wolf,” or “BBW,” the author has sent anonymous letters to three women advising each of them that he is about to kill them. The only thing that the ladies have in common, other than the untoward attention of the BBW, is the red color of their hair. They are otherwise quite different from one another.
"This is indeed an edge-of-your-seat thriller, in many ways one of Katzenbach’s best works to date. You will want to clear the deck in order to read it in one sitting."
The first is a physician, divorced and comfortably single in her 50s. The second is widowed and in her mid-30s, a former teacher whose life was devastated by a sudden tragedy that left her alone and isolated, on a slow but inevitable course of self-destruction. The third is a high school senior at an exclusive prep school, a poor little rich girl who is caught in the not-so-friendly crossfire of her parents’ pending divorce. Each is terrified by the receipt of her respective letter, though they react in different ways. Their common thread is that they feel isolated and alone in their terror.
When the BBW contacts each of them a second time, he makes a small mistake, one that involves not so much underestimating the ability of one of his potential victims as failing to take into account the full measure of her abilities. I don’t want to give this portion of the book away because it is such a quietly ingenious tipping point here; suffice to say that the BBW’s error enables the women to ever-so-slowly begin to turn the tables on their tormentor, even as they worry that the steps taken will be too little and too late, that he will strike at them before they are able to discover who and what the BBW is and save their own lives while bringing justice to his.
There are several different ways that RED 1-2-3 could have ended, and Katzenbach leaves the reader hanging until almost the end of the book to discover upon which potential branch of the story tree the conclusion will hang. This is indeed an edge-of-your-seat thriller, in many ways one of Katzenbach’s best works to date. You will want to clear the deck in order to read it in one sitting.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 17, 2014