Twenty-seven Bones

by Jonathan Nasaw

I'm beginning to notice a trend in some mysteries lately. The
protagonists --- the good guys, in most cases --- are aging
gracefully, not going gently into any good nights or any bad ones,
either, but staying active and keeping their hands in. I've reached
the age and station in life where I like reading about old guys
kicking butt, chasing skirts, and basically showing the younger
generation how the job gets done. Jonathan Nasaw includes this
element in his latest novel, TWENTY-SEVEN BONES, so he met the
burden right out of the block. Even without the seasoned citizen
element, however, this bad boy would be a winner.

Nasaw's protagonist, E.L. Pender, is an old guy, closer to 60 than
to 50, and if he has six-pack abs they're buried at the bottom of
the shopping cart. The great part about Pender is that he is a
believable old guy. He is a retired FBI Special Agent, but he's
past the stage where he is involved in car chases or initiating
explosions. I can't remember him firing his gun or even hitting
anyone (he does hit on someone, but that's another story). He can
still get the job done, however, as is amply demonstrated in

TWENTY-SEVEN BONES finds Pender chafing under the collar of his
retirement, engaging in too much eating and drinking and too little
thinking and doing. A voice from the past, however, provides him
with a respite from his boredom. Julian Coffee, an old friend and
former colleague of Pender's, is the police chief of the Caribbean
island of St. Luke. St. Luke, a fictitious combination of the U.S.
Virgin Islands, is an otherwise idyllic vacation spot that is being
despoiled by the presence of a serial killer who mutilates each
victim by cutting off their right hand.

Pender agrees to a working vacation of sorts, going back into FBI
mode while investigating the murders. He is initially as confused
as the police, no small wonder when one considers what he is up
against. For what the reader learns almost immediately is that "The
Machete Man," as the killer comes to be called, is in fact Phil and
Emily Epp, a husband and wife anthropology team who are in equal
measure intelligent, clever and deranged. They are carrying out
their ritualistic murders in the belief that, by stealing each of
their victims' last breaths, they will increase their own vitality
and lifespans. The Epps (and a partner or two who they pick up
along the way) succeed, at least initially, in casting the blame
for the murders on one of their own unfortunate victims, and the
inhabitants of St. Luke breathe a sigh of relief.

But Pender is not so sure, and if his plodding investigative
techniques are not as sure-footed as others within the genre, that
just makes him all the more real and endearing. Pender's
inclination to continue to pursue the investigation after it is
officially closed, however, puts him in mortal danger and leads to
a breathtaking --- and heart-stopping --- conclusion.

Nasaw does a terrific job of character development here. Even his
secondary characters are memorable and entertaining. I can't
remember a point in TWENTY-SEVEN BONES where it lagged for even a
moment, and part of the reason for this is Nasaw's chilling
characterization of the Epps. You'll be thinking of that couple
long after you finish the book; everyone knows at least one couple
in their circle of acquaintances who will remind you of them. Oh,
and the ending. I have to confess that it left me a bit misty-eyed,
even as I sensed it coming. Don't tell anyone, though.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011

Twenty-seven Bones
by Jonathan Nasaw

  • Publication Date: June 1, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Atria
  • ISBN-10: 0743446534
  • ISBN-13: 9780743446532