Monday, October 23, 2017

Book Review: "UNSUB" by Meg Gardiner

Don't mind me...just waiting for my pulse to get back to normal.

When one of your absolute favorite crime writers continually waxes poetic about how incredible a book is, you probably should listen. So I have Don Winslow to thank for recommending the amazing UNSUB by Meg Gardiner.

This is a book that has my heart pounding and my pulse racing, and I very well might wind up with nightmares (this is why I stopped watching shows like Criminal Minds on television), but holy crap, was it worth the ride. (P.S.: If you haven't read Winslow's The Forcesee my original review—you MUST.)

Like many families in the Bay Area in the 1990s, Caitlin Hendrix's family was wracked with fear about a highly intelligent, immensely dangerous serial killer called The Prophet, whose gruesome, graphic murders had everyone on edge. But Caitlin's family was different, as her father Mack was the lead detective trying to stop the Prophet from his ritual killings. All told, eleven people were murdered, each one more horrifying than the next, and each left with the ancient sign of Mercury somehow etched on them. The strain of trying to catch the Prophet broke Mack, destroyed his career and his marriage, and wrecked Caitlin's childhood.

"Caitlin could still recite the Prophet's profile from memory, almost word for word. Organized killer. Regards the murders as his mission. Extrovert. Has social skills and may be regarded as charming and outgoing. Incredible anger at women. He will show the dark tetrad of personality traits: Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and sadism."

After 20 years' silence, the Prophet returns with a vengeance. Caitlin, a detective with only six months under her belt, is brought on to the task force assembled to try and succeed where Mack and his colleagues failed. But this time around, the Prophet is bolder, showier, and even more cold-blooded. And he has his sights set on Caitlin, to draw her in and break her the same way he broke her father all those years ago.

As much as she is cautioned by her superiors, her boyfriend, even her father, not to lose herself in the Prophet's hellish mission, her carefully constructed barrier starts to fall. Finding the Prophet becomes a personal quest for Caitlin because he has made his wrath so personal against her. He wants to make her look like a fool, and then crush her with her failures.

The Prophet taunts law enforcement with his gruesome murders and his messages. What do they mean? Why is he escalating his destruction? Where was he for more than 20 years? Is this really the Prophet or simply a copycat? They are running out of time before this monster truly closes in—but will Caitlin succeed where her father failed? And if so, at what price?

Gardiner starts with a bang and never lets up for nearly 400 pages. She toys with her readers much like the Prophet did with law enforcement, teasing out some of the facts while confounding and frustrating you at the same time. Caitlin is a fantastic character—while she feels the weight of the victims (and her father's legacy) on her shoulders, she definitely doesn't think she's a superwoman; she just needs to make this monster stop, while figuring out what makes him tick.

This is more than simply a thriller. Gardiner imbues her story with heart and emotion at the same time as she's ratcheting your pulse up with suspense and some terrific action. Some of the murders are pretty heinous, but not worse than most thrillers or a few episodes of Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU. I just love the way she told this story, and I certainly can see why Winslow raved about it.

One of my frustrations with thrillers is when the killer is always one inexplicable step ahead of those hunting them down. That frustration bubbled up briefly here, but I like how Gardiner got around it, although one plot device seemed a tiny bit contrived. But nothing could stop me from devouring this book. I'm a newcomer to Gardiner's writing, but this won't be the last of her books I read. She's one hell of a writer, and this is such an excellent book.

In closing, I say to Don Winslow: thank you. And now I'll definitely listen to you in the future!

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