Serial 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.
Read an Excerpt
NORTH GREENWICH. Late May. Three hours before sunup and the river was deserted. Dark barges strained upstream on their moorings and a spring tide gently nosed small sloops free of the sludge they slept in. A mist lifted from the water, rolling inland, past unlit chandlers, over the deserted Millennium Dome and on across lonely wastelands, strange, lunar landscapesuntil it settled, a quarter of a mile inland amongst the ghostly machinery of a half-derelict construction yard.
A sudden sweep of headlightsa police vehicle swung into the service route, blue lights flashing silently. It was joined moments later by a second and a third. Over the next twenty minutes more police converged on the yardeight marked area cars, two plain Ford Sierras and the white transit van of the forensic camera team. A roadblock was placed at the head of the service route and local uniform were detailed to seal off riverside access. The first attending CID officer got onto Croydon exchange, asking for pager numbers for the Area Major Investigation Pool and, five miles away, Detective Inspector Jack Caffery, AMIP team B, was woken in his bed.
He lay blinking in the dark, collecting his thoughts, fighting the impulse to tilt back into sleep. Then, taking a deep breath, he made the effortrolled out of bed and went into the bathroom, splashing water onto his faceno more Glenmorangies in standby week, Jack, swear it now, swear itand dressednot too hurried, better to arrive fully awake and composednow the tie, something understatedCID don't like us looking flashier than them. The pager, and coffee, lots of instant coffeewith sugar but not milk, no milkand above all, don't eat, you just never know what you're going to have to look atdrank two cups, found car keys in the pocket of his jeans and, bolted awake now on caffeine, a roll-up between his teeth, drove through the deserted streets of Greenwich to the crime scene, where his superior, Detective Superintendent Steve Maddox, a small, prematurely gray man, immaculate as always in a stone-brown suit, waited for him outside the construction yardpacing under a solitary streetlight, spinning car keys and chewing his lip.
He saw Jack's car pull up, crossed to him, put an elbow on the roof, leaned through the open window and said: "I hope you haven't just eaten."
Caffery dragged on the handbrake. He pulled cigarettes and tobacco from the dashboard. "Great. Just what I was hoping to hear."
"This one's well past its sell-by." He stepped back as Jack climbed out of the car. "Female, partly buried. Bang in the middle of the wasteland."
"Been in, have you?"
"No, no. Divisional CID briefed me. And, um" He glanced over his shoulder to where the local CID officers stood in a huddle. When he turned back his voice was low. "There's been an autopsy on her. The old Y zipper."
Jack paused, his hand on the car door. "An autopsy?"
"Then it's probably gone walkabout from a path lab."
"A med student prank"
"I know, I know." Maddox held hands up, stalling him. "It's not really our territory, but look" He checked over his shoulder again and leaned in closer. "Look, they're pretty good with us usually, Greenwich CID. Let's humor them. It won't kill us to have a quick look. Okay?"
"Good. Now." He straightened up. "Now you. How about you? Reckon you're ready?"
"Shit, no." Caffery slammed the door, pulled his warrant card from his pocket and shrugged. "Of course I'm not ready. When would I ever be?"
They headed for the entrance, moving along the perimeter fence. The only light was the weak sodium yellow of the scattered streetlamps, the occasional white flash of the forensic camera crew floods sweeping across the wasteland. A mile beyond, dominating the northern skyline, the luminous Millennium Dome, its red aircraft lights blinking against the stars.
"She's been stuck in a bin-liner or something," Maddox said. "But it's so dark out there, the first attending couldn't be surehis first suspicious circumstances and it's put the wind up him." He jerked his head toward a group of cars. "The Merc. See the Merc?"
"Yeah." Caffery didn't break step. A heavy-backed man in a camel overcoat hunched over in the front seat, speaking intently to a CID officer.
"The owner. A lot of tarting-up going around here, what with the Millennium thing. Says last week he took on a team to clear the place up. They probably disturbed the grave without knowing it, a lot of heavy machinery, and then at oh one hundred hours"
He paused at the gate and they showed warrant cards, logged on with the PC and ducked under the crime scene tape.
"And then at oh one hundred hours this A.M., three lads were out here doing something dodgy with a can of Evostick and they stumbled on her. They're down at the station now. The CSC'll tell us more. She's been in."
Detective Sergeant Fiona Quinn, the crime scene coordinator, down from the Yard, waited for them in a floodlit clearing next to a Portakabin, ghostly in her white Tyvek overalls, solemnly pulling back the hood as they approached.
Maddox did the introductions.
"Jack, meet DS Quinn. Fionamy new DI, Jack Caffery."
Caffery approached, hand extended. "Good to meet you."
"You too, sir." The CSC snapped off latex gloves and shook Caffery's hand. "Your first. Isn't it?"
"With AMIP, yes."
"Well, I wish I had a nicer one for you. Things are not very lovely in there. Not very lovely at all. Something's split the skull openmachinery, probably. She's on her back." She leaned back to demonstrate, her arms out, her mouth open. In the half-light Caffery could see the glint of amalgam fillings. "From waist down is buried under precast concrete, the side of a pavement or something."
"Been there long?"
"No, no. A rough guess"she pulled the glove back on and handed Maddox a cotton face mask"less than a week; but too long to be worth rushing a "special.' I think you should wait until daylight to drag the pathologist out of bed. He'll give you more when he's got her in the pit and seen about insect activity. She's semi-interred, half wrapped in a dustbin liner: that'll've made a difference."
"The pathologist," Caffery said. "You sure we need a pathologist? CID think there's been an autopsy."
"And you still want us to see her?"
"Yes." Quinn's face didn't change. "Yes, I still think you need to see her. We're not talking about a professional autopsy."
Maddox and Caffery exchanged glances. A moment's silence and Jack nodded.
"Right. Right, then." He cleared his throat, took the gloves and face mask Quinn offered and quickly tucked his tie inside his shirt. "Come on, then. Let's have a look."
Even with the protective gloves, old CID habit made Caffery walk with hands in pockets. From time to time he lost sight of DS Quinn's flagged forensics torch, giving him moments of uneasethis far into the yard it was dark: the camera crew had finished and were shut in their white van, copying the master tape. Now the only light source was the dim, chemical glow of the fluorescent tape the CSC had used to outline objects either side of the path, protecting them until AMIP's exhibits officer arrived to label and bag. They hovered in the mist like inquisitive ghosts, faint green outlines of bottles, crumpled cans, something shapeless which might have been a T-shirt or a towel. Conveyor belts and bridge cranes rose eighty feet and more into the night sky around them, gray and silent as an out-of-season roller coaster.
Quinn held a hand up to stop them.
"There," she told Caffery. "See her? Just lying on her back."
"See the oil drum?" She let the torch slide over it.
"And the two reinforcing rods to its right?"
"Follow that down."
"Yes." He steadied himself. "Okay. I see it."
That? That's a body? He'd thought it was a piece of expanding foam, the type fired from an aerosol, so distended and yellow and shiny it was. Then he saw hair and teeth and recognized an arm. And at last, by tilting his head on one side, he understood what he was looking at.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," Maddox said wearily. "Come on, then. Someone stick an Inci over her."