VICIOUS is Kevin O’Brien’s 10th thriller, and I daresay that his audience will find it to be his best to date. As for fans of horror novels or mystery stories, they will spread the word that this book is a horrific mystery that fills the bill in all ways, a tale that will keep readers bouncing off the wall all night long.
The novel takes place primarily over the course of what will be an extremely long day for some of the characters and an all-too-short period of time for others. Susan Blanchette is no stranger to tragedy, having lost her beloved husband and older son in a terrible accident. She has started to put her life and that of her surviving son, four-year-old Mattie, back together. Allen, her fiancé, is a part of that process, even as she experiences some unspecified misgivings about starting over. When Allen suggests --- almost insists upon --- a trip to Cullen, an isolated vacation spot near Seattle, Susan agrees, hoping that a change of scenery will do them both good.
But Susan and Mattie haven’t even arrived at their destination before things become unsettling. First, Susan feels like she is being stalked in a fast food restaurant by a handsome but pushy stranger who wants to be too friendly too quickly. When the man shows up again as Susan makes a comfort stop at a convenience store in Cullen, she is all but certain that he is up to no good.
Meanwhile, Susan’s life and fate are about to become intertwined with three teenagers with whom she has a chance encounter at the convenience store. One of them, a young man named Jordan Prewitt, is a secondary victim of a notorious serial killer dubbed “Mama’s Boy” by the media. Mama’s Boy had been active 10 years previously in the Seattle area, and one of his victims was Jordan’s mother, who was abducted in front of the then-eight-year-old boy and murdered. Jordan became obsessed with the man, researching his other crimes as well as similar occurrences from around the nation.
It turns out that Allen has rented the very cabin where one of the abductions happened. Worse, murders similar to those committed by Mama’s Boy have begun to take place again in the area around Cullen. And just as Susan begins to feel as if she is being watched, Allen vanishes seemingly into thin air. She has no idea what is going on; all she knows is that she wants to take Mattie and go back to Seattle, either with or without Allen. Jordan, meanwhile, thinks that he has solved the mystery and is about to administer some rough justice on the man who changed his life forever. He may be wrong, though, and before the day is done in a normally quiet vacation spot, more than one innocent life could be lost forever.
VICIOUS reads like the book Alfred Hitchcock never filmed. Most of it takes place within a square mile or so in three different places, but seems to be written on a much larger scale. One thing is certain, however: you won’t think about renting a cabin in an idyllic setting without thinking about O’Brien’s latest thriller and reconsidering your vacation plans, among other things.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 2, 2011