“An Evil Mind” Chris Carter (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

An Evil Mind Chris Carter book cover

A freak accident leads to the discovery of a serial killer. A couple of Wyoming police officers decide to breakfast at a diner off a freeway. Whilst they are placing their order, a car, clearly out of control, runs off the freeway and hits one of the diner’s outbuildings. No one in the diner is injured but the car driver is dead; later it’s discovered he had a heart attack and was probably dead before the crash. However, the out of control car hit a Ford Taurus left in the diner car park, popping open the trunk. The police officers discover two human heads, just about recognisable as female but carrying sufficient injuries to make facial recognition impossible. The Ford Taurus driver is arrested and the FBI called in. The driver, first identified as Liam Shaw and then as Lucien Folter when it’s discovered the first identity was fake, refuses to talk unless he can talk to Robert Hunter.

Robert Hunter is with the Violent Crimes Unit in LAPD and is a brilliant criminal psychologist; known to the FBI for the textbook they use. Actually about to go on a rare holiday, Hunter reluctantly agrees to be involved in the investigation. He recognises Lucien Folter. They used to be roommates at college but lost touch after graduation. Lucien mentions the twin theory: the exploration of why one twin is happy to theoretically explore criminal psychology and why another isn’t satisfied with theory but tips into exploring what it’s like to actually kill someone. It doesn’t take Hunter or the FBI Agent Courtney Taylor who’s been assigned to work with him, long to figure that Lucien is the worst type of psychopath: completely incapable of feeling anything for his victims. Initial evidence suggests his victims were mainly, but not exclusively women, of differing ages and body types so trawling through unsolved murders and/or missing persons for a certain type of victim isn’t an option.

They quickly work out there could have been around thirty-three victims. Their job now is to identify who they were and where their remains are so that their relatives at least have a chance of closure. In order to do that, they need Lucien to cooperate. But Lucien likes playing games and his background means he can tell when Taylor or Hunter are lying. Unable to inflict physical pain on Taylor and Hunter, Lucien goes for mental and emotional pain. The death of Hunter’s mother when he was only eight years old is a good starting point and Hunter knows he’s got to play along if they’re going to get answers. Can Hunter stomach Lucien’s terrorising games long enough to get him to reveal the names and locations of his victims?

For all that Lucien tries to persuade Hunter that their places could be swapped, Hunter doesn’t lose sight of the fact that Lucien can only see others as tools, a means to use as he sees fit. Lucien’s complete lack of compassion, combined with practiced mental discipline make him utterly dangerous. Lucien wants notoriety. He wants his journals to become criminal psychology text books: his immortality. Hunter knows the value of those journals, but needs to deny Lucien.

Just when the tension couldn’t be tighter, Lucien discloses that one victim is still alive: imprisoned and beginning to suffer dehydration but still alive. Lucien demands he accompany Hunter and Taylor to retrieve the victim. At the same time, Lucien pushes Hunter for details about his late fiancée, particularly how she died. Hunter knows Lucien is planning to use this retrieval to escape, but can Hunter thwart his escape and save the victim?

“An Evil Mind” is a taut as a tuned guitar string played by an accomplished guitarist, who doesn’t just play the tune but owns it. Chris Carter, a former criminal psychologist, doesn’t just dump his background knowledge on the page, but crafts an engaging story with compelling characters.

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“One by One” Chris Carter (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Chris Carter One by One book cover

It looks like a viral marketing campaign for a new horror movie: an internet-based short film of a person tied to a chair in a darkened room and the audience invited to vote on the method of death. Social-media savvy, reality TV viewers, who are accustomed to tweeting about and voting on show participants, seem to be immune to the consequences of their actions in voting or assume that it’s a set-up with actors. However, detectives Garcia and Hunter know it’s real: they’ve seen the bodies and have to track down the killer. No easy task when the killer is a software expert who knows how to evade being traced and is a meticulous planner. To complicate things further there’s no apparent link between the victims or any evidence that the victims knew the killer.

A cybercrime expert discovers that the internet-videos are only viewable within California because the killer has blocked IP addresses outside the state, the detectives realise the killer’s motives are personal. Both detectives realise that Hunter is the final intended victim although they don’t know how many other intended victims there are. When Garcia’s wife, Anna, is targeted, he can’t help but take it personally. The killer is seeking revenge, but why play out that revenge via internet videos? The method is clearly important and not just because the killer is a skilled software engineer with too much time on his hands. There’s a reason for the elaborate set up.

At the heart of the novel are questions about choice. Not in the sense of free will, but how does someone choose to react when they have been wronged by the choices of others. When someone has chosen to inflict injuries on another, how much of a choice does the injured party have in seeking recompense? Who chooses whether a homicide is justified or not?

Readers need not answer these questions though. “One by One” can still be read as a thriller, a cat and mouse game between police detectives and serial killer. The explanations of how the killer is using technology to evade being traced, to set up the voting systems and block users outside California are done credibly without jargon-heavy information dumps.

When the killer is unveiled, his motives aren’t just about revenge. For his viewpoint, he is using his skills to send a message to people who might choose to carry out similar actions without considering how such actions affect their targets. Chris Carter draws from his experience as a criminal psychologist to create a rounded character whose actions are both believable and empathetic. Garcia and Hunter are clear individuals too: not just moulded into mismatched characters or a good cop/bad cop binary as a shorthand for differentiating between two detectives. Their characters have developed from previous novels, but readers don’t need to have read any previous novels to understand their dynamic. Other characters, whether unique to this novel or met in previous novels, are drawn with care and attention to their back stories.

The plot uses contemporary devices such as videos uploaded to social networking sites and internet trolls, but is not completely reliant on those devices. With some tweaks, it could still work in the world before social networking. The killer’s motives and actions are dark, but neither gratuitously gruesome nor black enough to snuff out a faith in humanity. “One by One” is a quality thriller with an intelligent plot and finely-judged pace.

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Review of Chris Carter’s The Death Sculptor

Review of Chris Carter’s Crucifix Killer

“The Death Sculptor” Chris Carter (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Death Sculptor Chris Carter book coverChris Carter doesn’t just draw on his extensive experience as a criminal psychologist but his sense of timing and pace suggest his music background is also a strong influence. “The Death Sculptor” satisfies readers after an intelligent story with pace.

A terminally-ill DA is found murdered, brutally, with some of his body parts, amputated while the man was still alive, used as a sculpture. The man’s nurse had unexpectedly gone back to his bedside to retrieve something but failed to turn on the bedroom light when she did so. It’s only in the morning after when the nurse discovers the body that she also discovers the killer’s message, “Good job you didn’t turn on the lights” and realises that a not doing a simple, natural action is the difference between her life and possible death. Because of the deceased’s position, a lot of political pressure comes down on detectives Hunter and Garcia to get quick results and a case that will stick, two tasks that are incompatible.

When a retired police officer is found similarly amputated whilst still alive and with a sculpture made from his body parts, the pressure is ramped up further as the police don’t take kindly to one of their own being killed and Garcia and Hunter how have to ensure premature action made by colleagues doesn’t jeopardise their investigation.

What seems to be an initial hindrance in guise of help is a member of staff from the DA’s office being sent over to assist the detectives. Usefully Alice Beaumont proves to be a database expert and not above hacking into databases to speed up information requests. Their first theory is that the killer is someone the DA put in jail or was jailed as a result of a lost case with a desire for revenge. Even when the list is slightly shortened by cases that also involved the retired policeman, there are still hundreds of names to search through and eliminate.

Meanwhile there are the sculptures that give a message, but what message? An art expert suggests ‘control’. After a long night staring at them, Hunter realises they are shadow puppets and the sculptures have to be looked at from the right angle to get the shadowy image the killer intends them to see. The DA’s sculpture means betrayal. The policeman’s sculpture suggests there are two more deaths planned. The art expert wasn’t far wrong: the serial killer is in control and betrayal is the motive, but can Hunter and Garcia solve the case before the FBI is drafted in by an impatient DA?

The killer’s motives are credible and born from a fully rounded character. Alice Beaumont was named after the winner of a competition to lend a name to a book character, so is intelligent and attractive but with restraint, making her believable. The relationship between Hunter and Garcia is developed from previous novels, rather than statically remaining the same as when they were first paired together. Minor characters feel fully-drawn and rounded. Some author’s names act as a quality mark and Chris Carter’s marks a quality, intelligent, fast-paced thriller.

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“Crucifix Killer” Chris Carter (Simon & Schuster) – Novel Review

Detective Robert Hunter, after tip off, discovers his rookie partner nailed to a cross behind a bulletproof door, heart strapped to a monitor which will trigger explosives if it flat lines.  There are three buttons, only one of which will open the bulletproof door, and there’s a clock ticking down from sixty seconds. 

Los Angeles has a serial killer.  One that’s intelligent enough to murder their victims in one place but leave the body in another for the police to find.  This means there are no forensic leads, no brilliant forensic trick that uncovers the killer.  This killer also has a surgeon’s precision and a love of torture.  With no apparent connection between the victims, the detectives stall.

The plot doesn’t though: that lives up to the blurbs, tight, slick and compelling.  Stylistically different, but Chris Carter shares James Lee Burke’s sense of pacing and place.  “Crucifix Killer” isn’t just a cat and mouse game between detective and murderer.  Chris Carter holds a mirror up to the detectives too: how do the police uphold the law when surrounded by people who don’t?  Doesn’t the corruption they deal with on a daily basis rub off on them too?  Similar to questions asked by James Ellroy, although Chris Carter is less concerned with politics and more focused on the effects of their work on the detectives.  One of whom is challenged when a pimp and dealer, who takes care of his high class prostitutes, leads the detective to a snuff movie operation.  The detective’s first reaction is to tell the pimp to back off and let the law take over.  But then evidence is uncovered that some of these movies involved children.  The pimp is as horrified and outraged at the detective.  The criminals here have a moral code too and one the detectives can understand if not subscribe too.  Chris Carter can draw fully rounded characters and appreciates people can do the wrong thing for the right reason and can also do the right thing for the wrong reason.  The serial killer is not completely evil, there is an underlying logic to their motives.

There are a couple of first novel nerves: a tendency to give back stories of minor characters, such as the morgue assistant, and a minor character’s appearance is described by two different characters to no apparent purpose.  Both forgivable and both easily cured with a dose of confidence.

The detectives, however, aren’t short of ideas and the plot twists and turns to a satisfying ending.  The tension is controlled like a professional.  Chris Carter has earnt his place on my “one to watch” list.