New York City has been home over the centuries to a plethora of killers, both real and imagined. But there's still room for the psychologically tormented slayer who arises from Gotham's seedy underbelly in Ladykiller, by husband-and-wife authors Meredith Anthony and Lawrence Light. Set in 1991, before New York City's crime rate dropped to it's present-day, ho-hum low levels, this novel centers on a Manhattan serial killer, who has already taken the lives of several women by the opening refrain, wherein the fourth victim is soon claimed. Given the moniker "Ladykiller" by the New York Police Department task force sent in pursuit, this murderer has done in all the victims in the same gruesome fashion -- with a .45-caliber bullet to the right eye.
The .45 fired, a brief thunderclap that rolled across the parking lot. Its bullet smashed through her right eye, brutalizing the softest, most vulnerable membrane. The bullet tore through her brain and burst out the back of her skull in a spray of bone and blood and tissue. Her soul, startled, fled. Her body, already cooling, slowly slipped, dropped away, and fell back into the welcoming trash.
Dave Dillon is the lead detective, and he is known for his "drive and analytical powers." In recognition of his prowess, Dillon gets to look the bodies over before anyone else, including the Crime Scene Unit (eat your heart out, Gus Grissom). In the best hard-boiled detective tradition, Dillon also has a checkered past, and it makes him a potential liability in the eyes of Chief of Detectives Richard Mancuso. Yet, there's always someone who manages to keep the faith. In this instance, it's Dillon's immediate boss, Lieutenant Blake, who has full confidence in the beleaguered and talented cop.
Blake had personally requested Dave for this task force. If not for him, Dave would be back in a uniform, with the coldhearted brass waiting for him to slip up one more time so they could bounce him out. "This case would save his life. This case was his life."
The killer is revealed early on in the narrative (this reviewer will only say it's a woman), and the remaining portions of the book become more a cat-and-mouse game, primarily between Dillon and the Ladykiller, rather than rolling out as a standard police-procedural account of how the murderer's identity is slowly but surely determined. Don't worry that Anthony and Light's story might lose steam with the early revelation; there are enough twists to the plot here to keep readers surprised, up until the very shocking end. Additionally, the best crime novels are not merely whodunits, but character studies. Ladykiller offers a cast of cops, killers, lovers and psychopaths that are as enthralling as the succession of sensational murders.
Ladykiller moves briskly though a nostalgic Manhattan landscape that existed at one time, but does no longer. The setting jumps from one seedy locale to another, including the 42nd Street strip club called Foxy Lady, where Dillon chases Florida felon Billy Ray Battle, mistakenly believing him to be the slayer. Forty-Second Street is a far different place nowadays, congested with food franchises and retail shops, rather than porno joints and strip clubs. The authors are New York City natives, and their depiction of Manhattan 16 years ago is not only accurately rendered, but they succeed in making that era -- for good and bad -- come to life once more.
Detective Dillon believes the nexus of the recent homicidal spree is the West Side Crisis Center, a mental-health clinic that deals with issues such as AIDS, suicide, rape and child abuse. Many of that center's clients are clearly unbalanced, such as the homeless man, Ace, who is in love with center director and sociologist Nita Bergstrom, and who in fact claims to be the Ladykiller. Dillon's conviction about the significance of the crisis center to his case solidifies, following the murder of a male clinic volunteer, and after files at the center suddenly turn up missing -- files that could link several of the victims to the facility. Although the Ladykiller shifts from one gender of victim to another, the psychology of this exterminator "allows" for such a permutation, as Dillon reasons it out with Bergstrom in one passage:
"With Henry Lee Lucas, Ted Bundy, practically all the infamous serial killers, the series started in the same manner. See, the first incident was an accident. Then they went through a panicked phase, fearful they would be caught. When nothing happened, they got cocky. They started to plan the murders. No accidents anymore. Method. Calculation. They begin to think of themselves as God. No one could touch them. They were smarter than the police, than the victims. They didn't grasp the awful penalty of their actions, even if they never got caught."
Ladykiller is a blend of hard-boiled and softer elements, a fusion of crime, psychology and romance. The murder scenes are starkly written ("The bullet tore through [his] right eye blowing out half the skull"), and perps are interrogated in the staccato patter one expects from seasoned NYPD cops. When the authors get underneath a character, however, when they flesh out the internal motivations, the novel veers towards something more akin to mainstream fiction -- especially in the romance angles. While Detective Jamie Loud is attracted to her task force partner Dillon, he in turn becomes romantically involved with Megan Morrison, a young social worker at the crisis center. Both Morrison and Dillon have been burned in past relationships, and though the attraction is initially tentative, it gets downright hot and heavy at times.
Inside the welcoming warmth of Megan's apartment, they didn't bother with lights or talk. They tugged off each other's clothes. Dave picked up Megan and carried her to the bed. She brushed the stuffed animals onto the floor and drew him needfully into her arms.
"Slow, slow, slow," she gasped.
He entered her with agonizing, exquisite slowness. With each hard, hot inch, she cried out. Her thighs squeezed his hips. At last, Megan eagerly locked her legs around him.
Their love affair hits a snag, however, when Morrison's overbearing mentor, Bergstrom, declares that she doesn't like Dave Dillon. The brilliant and dedicated Bergstrom's opinion matters a great deal to the impressionable Morrison -- too highly for Morrison's own welfare. Bergstrom has issues of her own to resolve, including a warped sense of how far to go in using culture as a testing ground for sociological theories. During a tirade on the matter of Morrison dating Dillon, Bergstrom dramatically knocks over an aquarium kept at the mental-health clinic. And, yes -- Bergstrom has anger issues, too.
Because the identity of the killer here is known early on, the red herrings are more for the task force to wade through, while the reader takes a backseat interest in the success, or failures of Dillon and company. Joining the hunt is Jimmy Conlon, a newspaper reporter and a good friend of Dillon's. The authors make accurate use of the police-media interplay and the politics of the newsroom, and one can imagine Forbes veteran Light (whose last book was Fear & Greed) being the guiding force here. Tension is served as the killer meets with one character or another, and the reader fears for that player's well being. It makes for an interesting experience. The authors are seasoned talents, and there is a terrific blend of action, humor, psychology and romance in these pages. By the book's end, several major characters have lost their lives, and Dillon seems to have resurrected his career. The shocking dénouement serves as one of the best endings this reviewer has come across all year.
Ladykiller is a fast read, owing to its adroit pacing. Furthermore, there is one voice throughout -- not an easy thing to accomplish for co-writers. Given the sophistication of the material, the dark humor, complex characters and the chockfull-of-crime happenings in Ladykiller, Meredith and Light could become the crime-fiction-writing equivalent of Nick and Nora Charles. This is a confident and accomplished debut. | May 2007
Anthony Rainone is a contributing editor of January Magazine and the author of a blog called Anthony Rainone's Criminal Thoughts.