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From Barnes & NobleSerial killers, like vampires, now occupy their own subgenre, the roots of which can be traced back to such modern classics as Robert Bloch's Psycho and Shane Stevens's By Reason of Insanity. The current glut of serial killer novels, however, stems from the success of two books by Thomas Harris: Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Together, these books constitute a bridge between groundbreaking work like Psycho and the surfeit of serial killer novels published in the wake of Harris's unprecedented success.
Thus, it is not surprising that many writers have adopted Harris's basic formula, the most recent example being Birdman, penned by first-time novelist Mo Hayder. Like Harris's "pre-Hannibal" works, Birdman is essentially a police procedural, featuring a gifted yet troubled investigator who confronts the depths of human evil. What distinguishes Hayder's book from the rest of the pack is that she, like Harris, uses the investigation as a metaphor for the investigator's personal journey into the heart of darkness, one that manages to illuminate the minds of both hunter and prey. Hayder performs this task admirably, allowing readers an intimate glimpse of the policeman's personal hell.
Birdman opens as Detective Inspector Jack Caffery arrives at a murder scene in North Greenwich, near the Millennium Dome. Recently roused from a sound sleep, Caffery can think of several other places he'd rather be, options that, given the grisly crime scene, come to seem more attractive by the minute. Called there to investigate a body wrapped in garbage bags, Caffery is told that the burial site contains not one but five corpses, each apparently the victim of the same killer.
Autopsies reveal that the corpses have several things in common. The victims were all dispatched by an injection of heroin directly into the brain stem. After their deaths, the bodies were preserved for a time, apparently serving as entertainment for a necrophiliac. Besides being horribly mutilated, each victim's heart has been removed and replaced by a small bird.
Although Caffery welcomes this new challenge, it arises at a particularly inopportune time. Recently appointed to his position, he is embroiled in an interoffice political situation that could cost him his job. He's also trying to break up with his clinging, cloying girlfriend, who refuses to accept that their relationship is over. Finally, he's still dealing with the central tragedy of his life, the disappearance of his brother Ewan some two decades before. Although only a child at the time, Caffery suspected his neighbor, an odd little man named Penderecki, was involved. Obsessed with the man, Caffery bought his childhood home from his parents, hoping his mere presence would unsettle the man into confessing. Bizarrely, Mr. Penderecki instead appears to be taking Caffery's presence as a challenge, taunting him every chance he gets, a practice that escalates just as Caffery takes the "Birdman" case.
Caffery persists despite these problems, quickly concluding that the killer must be associated with a hospital near a bar the victims frequented. Narrowing his investigation, he focuses on a likely suspect, who commits suicide when confronted by the police. Caffery can't rest however, as another body surfaces soon thereafter. Forced to question his assumptions, the detective eventually realizes he's been dancing around the answer all along. The only question remaining is whether he has uncovered the truth in time to prevent another killing.
Even though Hayder is following a formula, there are enough personal touches to ensure that this novel stands on its own. One example is her seemingly intimate knowledge of forensics and British police procedures; another is the book's colorful cast of characters and sense of place. Caffery is a well drawn, vital character, sure to evoke readers' interest and sympathy -- his relationship with Mr. Penderecki, while improbable, nevertheless makes for some genuinely creepy, almost operatic moments. I'd say Hayder's only mistake was in not clinging to the Harris formula more closely, as she fails to humanize her killer, a practice that catapulted Harris into bestsellerdom. This is a minor criticism, however, and I recommend the book highly. Well-plotted and brutally honest, Birdman is a powerful, disturbing thriller, one of the more memorable debuts of 1999.
Hank Wagner is a book reviewer for Cemetery Dance magazine and The Overlook Connection.