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Psychopath - Keith Ablow
This was one of my two holiday reads. It is one of a series of three books by this author in the 'Frank Clevenger' series, I have not read the other two and this book stands alone, it is not necessary to read the others, though I might now, lol.
What attracted me initially to this book was the fact that Harlan Coben, an author I like quite a lot has a quote on the cover which states: 'Keith Ablow's setting is the darkest of all - the twists and turns of the human mind'. From this point I was hooked in.
It is a crime/serial killer type book with a couple of major differences to other books.
The first difference being that we know 'whodunnit' within a couple of pages, this was a risky departure from the norm by the author as my first thoughts were, how on Earth will we get a story for the next 350 pages when we already know who the killer is?
The second difference/thing that stands out for me is that we get to see the insights and thoughts of the two main characters and how they are different sides of the same coin, really interesting stuff....I should explain a bit more via the plot.
It is not hard to work out the plot, and I give nothing away, as you will get the picture very quickly.
The 'Highway killer' has taken many lives over a period of years, no real pattern, black, white, male, female, young old, only commonality is proximity to highways. We know pretty early on (first few pages) that the killings are committed by a brilliant and unhinged psychiatrist, Jonah Wrens.
Of course, the police, FBI etc. have no real leads and so call in a famous forensic psychiatrist/psychologist to help them find the killer, the cliché being that this guy (Frank Clevenger) has his own demons and is quite consumed with looking after an adopted teenage son who is going off the rails a bit.
There are a few more clichés, the doomed love affair, the abusive past of both protagonists, but that's okay, it all adds to the story.
Basically what then plays out for sometime is a cat and mouse game via media letters between Jonah and Frank, this is a great story line, yet not developed enough in the book, it could have been much more central and ongoing as it really is an interesting way of developing the relationship between killer and 'hunter'.
I won't tell you how it ends as that would spoil things, though I will say it is quite dark.
What's good about this book?
1. The plot is interesting and different enough to keep the reader interested, in fact it took me only three days to read.
2. I really like the concept of knowing who dunnit at the beginning and then unravelling the 'why'?
3. The insights into the minds is pretty damn good too.
4. The references to psychiatric work, body language, techniques etc. are very good, if a little basic.
What could be better?
1. More development of the media relationship
2. More use of descriptive writing outside of the descriptive narrative of the mind, we do not 'see' enough of the settings etc.
Did I like it?
Oh yes, it is a reasonably short text (352 pages) and flows very well. It is exciting in parts and very dark in other parts, the 'killings' and the leads up to them are quite fascinating and the use of self reflection (all be it deluded) in the killers thought patterns are really very good.
So it is a book I would recommend, not a classic, but a very good read, this author has potential, in my opinion to be as good as other 'big' writers like Stephen King, Harlan Coben, Dean Koontz, and the difference in style to stand out.
It is no surprise to me that the author is in fact a forensic psychiatrist by profession, sometimes writing what you know about makes it all that more believable, nice one.
An endorsement from Dennis Lehane on the back sleeve was the main reason for my acquiring this book as I had not read any of Keith Ablows work before. Now a writer recommendation is not always a guarantee of a quality book but in this case my trust bore fruit and I got to read a little cracker of a psychological thriller.
The fundamental plot is about a serial killer nick-named the Highway Killer as all his victims are left close to the road. Frank Clevenger a forensic psychiatrist is approached by the FBI to help track him down as the body count has risen well I into double figures and the locations stretch across the United States. Initially he declines as he has a complicated home situation however when the Highway Killer makes contact with Clevenger via a letter in the newspaper challenging Clevenger to cure him. Reluctantly he ends up taking the case.
On the face of it this sounds like a fairly convention serial killer type story that exists in a genre packed with talented writers, Lehane, Patterson and Kellerman to name but three. However this book stands out for a couple of reasons.
Firstly it is the way in which Ablow portrays the serial killer Jonah Wren, (you know his identity in the first chapter so that is not a plot detail that I have revealed) the story telling shifts from the view point of a number of characters throughout the book so at times you are inside the head of Wrens. The key thing about the character of Wrens is the fact that throughout the book I felt pity for him, the clever thing that Ablow does is to have a serial killer who although he is fundamentally flawed in his character also has some incredibly great redeeming features. The other quirk about Wrens is that he is also a psychiatrist and an incredibly skilled one who not only feeds off the pain and suffering of those he treats but is also highly skilled in curing them. The fact that in a single chapter he can begin to cure the suffering of some of the worst cases and then go off to brutally murder someone provides a total contrast.
In most books you tend to hope that the killer will be caught well in this book I found myself hoping that the killer would in fact be cured and actually evade capture to carry on the good work that he does. This is because Ablow uses his own skills as a forensic psychiatrist to create patients for Wrens that have some severe emotional issues and the fact that Wrens is able to treat them is a great plus in the opinion the reader holds of the killer.
A second positive in this book is the fact that in a fairly short 352 pages Ablow is skilled at developing the characters of three other protagonists in the book. Clevenger himself is fundamentally flawed in his character, abused as a child by his father he has multiple addictions for drugs, alcohol and gambling which he is currently free from and also in Billy he has adopted a troubled teenager whose own horrific past is tied up in an old case and is slowly going off the rails with drug and alcohol use himself. There are direct links between the characters of Wrens, Clevenger and Billy which make the storyline all the more interesting. Added to this is a fourth character Dr Whitney McCormick who works for the FBI provides an additional complication for Clevenger.
The story telling is fast paced and as I wrote earlier it switches primarily between the view points of Clevenger and Wrens as they carry on an exchange of letters through the papers however parts of the story do shift to both Billy and McCormick as well. The plot is fundamentally sound, there is only one slight issue I had with a bit too near the end for me to go into any detail without spoiling part of the ending but it is a minor concern given the overall quality of the book.
Ablow clearly knows his subject matter and in fact has testified in a number of top US serial killer trials and he makes excellent use of his strengths to give the book a certain feel of authority, one written by a writer who is in a comfort zone of knowledge not having to rely on others to provide the technical knowledge or profile of the main characters.
I would certainly recommend this book; it is ideal holiday reading if you like this particular genre. I obtained my copy from readitswapit.co.uk which is a book swapping site. It is available from Amazon for £5.49 new or from a penny in the new and used section. Published by Pan Books the rrp is £6.99 on my paperback copy. The ISBN is 0-330-42762-8.
Thanks for reading and rating my review.
Who do you imagine would make the most effective and most difficult serial killer to catch? According to the fiction books that I read and TV shows like Criminal Minds these killers are often caught because they follow patterns unknown to them, but obvious to people like psychologists. People in this profession will dictate instantly that the killer will be a white male between 20-40 who has a minor criminal record and abusive parents. The killer may be caught because of his very nature. Therefore, perhaps the most successful killer would be someone who is a psychiatrist themselves? They would be able to use the knowledge they have to ensure they are never caught. If you send a thief to catch a thief, perhaps you need to send a psychiatrist to catch a psychiatrist?
Frank Clevenger is a somewhat notorious psychiatrist who is known in the media for proving a young man innocent of murder and catching the real killer. When the FBI decide to bring in a expert to help them catch the Highway Killer, a person that has left over 10 bodies next the road in 10 states, Clevenger seems to be the right guy for the job. However, things are not as straight forward as they first seem as the killer decides to open communication with Clevenger via the newspapers in a series of open letters. Its clear from these letters that this is a man of words and more intelligent than most. Can Clevenger catch this self aware murderer whilst trying to protect his family from the glare of the media?
The core reason that this book is good and not just average is the interaction of the different characters in the book. In many ways Ablow has created characters that are as cliché as any crime novel, but he manages to make them seem more rounded by giving them rough edges and believable problems. The two relationships that drive this book are between Clevenger and the killer and Clevenger and his son. Ablow has written the book so that you follow the killer for a chapter then the hero. This means that we know who the killer is and must follow the FBI and co. as they hunt for clues. This method has proven successful for authors like John Sandford, and it works here too.
I loved the open interaction that the killer and Clevenger have through the book via letters in the newspapers printed on the front page. Ablow is able to create an interesting relationship as both killer and hunter are trying to coax information out of the other without giving any clues away. This dialogue is a unique way of getting into both characters brains and really adds to the tension as Clevenger tries to push the killer to breaking point.
This battle of the minds is well supported by Clevengers personal relationship with his adopted son, Billy. Billy has just been expelled from his prestigious private school due to selling drugs. Clevenger must find a way to solve this problem under the watchful eye of the papers and social services. By adding this extra dynamic into the mix Ablow manages to create even more tension in the novel.
With such good characterisations it does not matter that the story is a straight forward chase. Essentially Ablow has managed to take a linear plotline that has been done before and add characters that you care about enough to make it enjoyable. I previously read Murder/Suicide by the same author and its amazing to see the improvement in Psychopath. Having a decent plot is not always essential if you are able to create a network of people that are interesting to read about.
Overall, Psychopath is an interesting and slightly more intellectual take on the serial killer genre. Its definitely airport fiction, but the fact that the killer is a professional with a keen sense of their own flaws means that it rises above. The characters of Clevenger and Billy are flawed and you want to see them succeed as a family. Add to this a great dynamic between the killer and FBI and you have a fast enjoyable read. I would recommend this to crime fans as something a bit different.
Author: Keith Ablow
Price: amazon uk - £3.99
play.com - £5.49