Under Cover of Darkness
by James Grippando
Published by HarperCollins
395 pages, 2000
Buy it online
Reviewed by Jack Curtin
In Under Cover of Darkness, James Grippando has written a thriller which might fairly be termed "schizophrenic." The core story is an intriguing mystery centered around the disappearance of the wife of a hotshot corporate attorney. That disappearance is investigated by both her husband and the authorities against the background of a serial killer terrorizing the Seattle area. The killer turns out to have as original a motivation for his brutal murders as you're likely to find in this genre. Fascinating questions eventually arise about whether the vanished Beth Wheatley is a probable victim of the madman... or his willing accomplice. Most certainly, Grippando delivers what can only be described as a shocking and utterly unpredictable ending.
And there, I'm afraid, is the rub.
Say what? Is not a surprise ending, the final twist that leaves us gasping, arguably the one attribute readers most demand of a proper thriller? Probably. But the problem here is that Grippando (Found Money, 1999, The Abduction, 1998), having spent the first three-quarters of his book telling a nicely paced and thoughtful story about a man rediscovering himself in the midst of terrible, ongoing emotional strain and about police and FBI officials who proceed steadily with their investigations, abruptly shifts gears in the final 100 pages and turns his tale into something else entirely. The ending is surprising, all right, but it is also strikingly out of character with what has gone before. So much so that, for this reader at least, all that carefully constructed credibility was irredeemably shattered.
The disappearance of his wife of 15 years brings Gus Wheatley face to face with the realization that he has lost touch with her, with their 6-year-old daughter, Morgan, and, for that matter, with everything in his life outside of his work. At 41, already the managing partner in Seattle's premier law firm, Gus is so far disconnected from his family that, as he tries valiantly to bond with his young daughter in the days following Beth's disappearance, he undergoes such humiliations as having to be introduced as a stranger to her best friend and regular playmate.
It is during his attempts to win Morgan over that he also learns how little he actually knew about Beth and her life in recent years. While she had, five years previously, falsely and publicly accused him of spousal abuse, it turns out that was just one manifestation of a personality in turmoil. For example, after Morgan steals a valuable wooden horse from Gus' office during her first visit there, he gently confronts her on their drive home. Morgan acknowledges the theft and then seems oddly uncomfortable when he presses the issue:
"I'm confused again, Morgan. Are you saying you don't know it's wrong to steal things?"
Morgan claims such thefts occurred several times and Gus' initial doubts are erased when he searches Beth's closet and finds several outfits from Nordstrom that are neither her size nor style. Not long after, when Morgan has to visit the family dentist for a toothache, he learns yet another secret. The dentist informs him that Beth had been visiting her twice a week for the past month.
The distraught lawyer's attempt to hold what's left of his family together is buttressed by his sister Carla, from whom he has been essentially estranged in recent years. Herself the survivor of an abusive marriage, Carla had sided with Beth when she falsely accused Gus of hitting her. Despite the fact that her missing sister-in-law took neither money nor clothing with her, Carla still appears to feel that she ran away rather than stay with Gus. Awkward, yes, but Morgan knows and trusts her aunt and Carla's presence allows Gus the freedom to pursue investigations into his wife's whereabouts. No such support system is available for him professionally, however, as his unscrupulous administrative assistant at Preston & Coolidge, Martha Goldstein, engineers a coup that ousts him from his position there on the grounds that the publicity surrounding Beth's disappearance, coupled with the earlier abuse charges, are unhealthy for the firm.
The other central character in this book is Andie Henning, an attractive young FBI agent who acts as liaison to the serial-killer investigations and is thus involved with Beth's disappearance. While Gus, although not entirely fleshed out, is a consistently drawn character (at least until the final 100 pages), Andie is a somewhat muddled one. She is described early on as looking younger than her 27 years and lacking both experience (only three years with the Bureau) and self-confidence. Yet when we first meet Andie in the opening chapter, she is loudly disrupting her own wedding ceremony, accusing her husband-to-be of sleeping with her half-sister the night before and storming out of the church. A fascinating introduction, to be sure, and two later scenes in the book play off of it: an angry telephone conversation between Andie and her mother and a violent encounter with her drunken ex-fiancé. None of these events really has anything to do with the story at hand, however, serving only to seriously undercut that "lack of confidence" label. Even other revelations -- that Andie was adopted at age 9 and is part American Indian -- while interesting, are not truly relevant to the story. For what it's worth, all this background detail makes me suspect that Grippando has future plans for this character.
Andie develops a theory about the Seattle serial killings, one which is tacitly accepted by FBI profiler Victoria Santos, brought in as an adviser. Andie's "bookend" thesis is that each victim is a mirror image of another. All three victims to that point had been killed in the same way -- strangulation by hanging, done with a triple-braided yellow synthetic rope similar to those used on ski tow lines. All the bodies were mutilated with multiple stab wounds after death. The first two, both male, were identical in terms of physical appearance, jobs, even the vehicles they drove, while the third, a woman, could be Beth Wheatley's double. The eventual discovery of a fourth victim, who also looks a great deal like Gus' missing wife, supports the theory but leaves the question of whether Beth herself is a victim up in the air.
Then Morgan receives a phone call, during which the silent person on the other end plays "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on the telephone key pad. She tells her father this was a secret signal she and Beth shared. When the call is subsequently traced to a phone booth in Oregon, a fifth victim's body is discovered nearby and she, too, is virtually identical to the other two female victims (and Beth). More to the point is the discovery of Beth's, and only Beth's, fingerprints on the phone. If she made the call, does that mean she is neither victim nor prisoner, but rather working with the serial killer?
With the case now crossing state boundaries, the FBI takes over and Andie is put in charge. Gus, meanwhile, hires a private detective and offers a major reward in the newspapers on his advice. This results in an inmate at the Washington Correctional Center for Women, Shirley Borge, calling Gus to claim she has information about his missing wife. She wants to negotiate concessions in her prison life in addition to receiving the money and, to prove what she has to sell is valuable, she directs Gus and the FBI to a used clothing store in Yakima, Washington, promising they will recognize that she is telling the truth based upon what they will find there. Andie goes undercover and gets a job at the store, but would never have picked up on the clue supplied by the inmate; however, Gus, on his own, also arrives in Yakima and recognizes a dress in the store's front window as having belonged to his missing wife.
Up to this point, Grippando has been telling a story which is interesting and engrossing on several levels. The mystery of what happened to Beth Wheatley and whether she is alive or dead, victim or accomplice, is a good one and its resolution is impossible to guess. Gus Wheatley emerges as a likable person who has made bad choices along the way and is now coming to grips with his own failings. The logical progression of the relatively untried Andie Henning into the role of chief investigator on this case has been nicely developed. All this has been done without resorting to cliché or melodrama: The attractive agent and distraught husband do not develop an immediate romantic attraction; and when Martha Goldstein arranges a clandestine meeting with Andie and, under the guise of being Gus' good friend, attempts to implicate him in his wife's disappearance, the agent recognizes the situation for what it is rather than jumping on the false trail of Gus as suspect.
It is with a second discovery in Yakima that everything begins to go awry. Andie learns of the existence of a strange cult in the area and decides to infiltrate it in order to determine whether Beth Wheatley is, or was, a member. Gus, meanwhile, frustrated by what he sees as the FBI's unwillingness to aggressively pursue the case (Andie's foray into the cult world is unknown to him) and by circumstances which foreclose his getting any further information from prisoner Shirley Borge, begins taking matters even more into his own hands. He and his investigator, Dexter Bryant, start seeking out information and witnesses that one might have thought the FBI would have attended to long before. Both his and Andie's actions quickly lead to...
Well, what they lead to would be telling entirely too much, a line that the very nature of this book has already led me perilously close to crossing. I will note, at least, that the closing pages include the revelation of an accomplice to the killer's scheme whose role has been very neatly set up and which ties several loose ends together. Suffice it to say further only that what had been, within the context of the genre, a believable and intelligent story, suddenly erupts into slam-bang action and improbable derring-do. And it is not even entirely clear why.
To be fair, while I found the sudden shift in tone and texture in this novel's ending to be unsettling and disappointing, I admit it would not surprise me at all if some, perhaps many, readers disagreed with that assessment. At any number of popular resorts this summer, its perplexing duality obscured by the classic "willing suspension of disbelief" and a cold piña colada, Under Cover of Darkness may be hailed as the perfect beach read. | June 2000
Jack Curtin is a freelance writer and frequent January Magazine contributor, based in the Philadelphia area.