The Barnes & Noble Review
Just as he did in his hypnotic 1998 thriller, Where Serpents Lie , T. Jefferson Parker continues to display a remarkable ability to reimagine, and therefore revitalize, a played-out popular form. His latest novel, The Blue Hour , is, like its predecessor, a serial killer novel, one more in the endless procession that has followed in the wake of Thomas Harris's remarkable success. Unlike most of the breed, however, Just as he did in his hypnotic 1998 thriller, Where Serpents Lie , T. Jefferson Parker continues to display a remarkable ability to reimagine, and therefore revitalize, a played-out popular form. His latest novel, The Blue Hour , is, like its predecessor, a serial killer novel, one more in the endless procession that has followed in the wake of Thomas Harris's remarkable success. Unlike most of the breed, however, The Blue Hour brings a clean, clear style and a fresh personal vision to some familiar material. The result is a page-turner with substance, a grisly, gripping thriller with an emotional weight and a moral dimension that are entirely its own.
In Orange County, California, an unknown killer is attacking beautiful women in the parking lots of crowded malls, and then driving away with them in their own vehicles, after which none of the women are ever seen again. Despite the absence of bodies, forensic evidence suggests that the killer dubbed The Purse Snatcher by the local press is draining the bodies of blood and then embalming them, thus preserving the corpses for some fetishistic purpose of his own.
Spearheading the investigation for the Orange County Sheriff's Department is Detective Sergeant Merci Rayborn, an angry, ambitious, often difficult woman who has recently initiated a controversial sexual harassment suit against her own former partner in the homicide division. As a result of this suit, Merci's actions and job performance are being scrutinized with a greater than normal intensity both by the public and by her fellow officers, many of whom are actively hoping to see her fail.
Joining Merci on the case is sixty-seven-year-old consultant Tim Hess, a recently retired homicide veteran who has just been diagnosed with cancer. Hess has lost part of one lung and is currently enduring a debilitating series of treatments involving both chemotherapy and radiation. Faced with what may turn out to be his own death sentence, Hess views the case as an unexpected opportunity to be "useful," to make one last contribution to the well-being of his beleaguered community.
Parker skillfully moves the narrative back and forth between the carefully articulated viewpoints of both hunter and hunted. Along the way, he supplements his account of the day-to-day progress of a complex investigation with chilling excursions into the psychology of a sexual psychopath, and with detailed discussions of a number of relevant subjects, including methods of embalming, techniques of high-tech car theft, and the deployment of a controversial "deterrent" called chemical castration, in which sex offenders are regularly injected with progesterone, a female hormone that results in the gradual destruction of the male sex drive, along with a number of equally unpleasant side effects.
Parker to my mind one of the more underappreciated figures in contemporary crime fiction gives us an expertly constructed narrative that moves swiftly and gracefully through a series of carefully prepared surprises toward a violent and credible conclusion. The real pleasures of this book, though, are the pleasures of character, of genuine emotional involvement with the lives and dilemmas of believable people. Merci Rayborn, a smart, driven woman fueled by a rage she cannot always control, becomes progressively more real, and progressively more sympathetic, as the story unfolds. Tim Hess, a decent man whose sense of moral responsibility is heightened by his unanticipated confrontation with mortality, is equally well-drawn. The evolving relationship between the two, which is initially adversarial but gradually moves in unexpected directions, stands at the center of the narrative and accounts for a good deal of its considerable emotional strength.
The Blue Hour , then, comes highly recommended, even to those readers who are justifiably sick of the serial killer subgenre. Parker brings something of his own to the form, a combination of personal commitment and technical skill that lends depth, and a surprising freshness, to an overworked corner of the literary world.
Read an Excerpt
That Sunday evening Tim Hess lumbered down the sidewalk to the snack stand at 15th Street. The skaters parted but paid him no attention. It was cool for August and the red flag on the lifeguard house pointed stiff to the east. The air smelled of the Pacific and ketchup.
Hess got coffee and headed across the sand. He sat down on the picnic bench and squinted out at the waves. A big south swell was coming and the sea looked lazy and dangerous.
A minute later Chuck Brighton joined him at the table. His tie flapped in the breeze and his white hair flared up on one side then lay down again. He set a briefcase onto the bench and sat down beside it facing Hess. He tore open a pack of sugar.
"Hello, boss," said Hess.
"Tim, how are you feeling?"
"I feel damned good, considering. Just look at me."
Brighton looked at him and said nothing. Then he leaned forward on his elbows. He was a big man and when he shifted his weight on the wooden bench Hess could feel the table move because the benches and the table were connected with steel pipe. Hess looked at the angry waves again. He had lived his childhood here in Newport Beach, well over half a century ago.
"You'll have to feel damn good for something like this. I haven't seen anything like it since Kraft. It would have to happen now, six months after my best detective retires."
Hess didn't acknowledge the compliment. Brighton had always been as generous with his praise as he was with his punishments. They'd worked together for over forty years and they were friends.
"We can put you back on payroll as a consultant. Full time, and you get all the medical. Forget the Medicare runaround."
"That's what I'm after."
Brighton smiled in a minor key. "I think you're after more than that, Tim. I think you need a way to stay busy, keep your hand in things."
"There is that."
"He's got to be some kind of psychopath. There really isn't much to go on yet. This kinda guy makes me sick."
Hess had suspected but now he knew. "The National Forest dumps."
"Dump isn't really the word. But you saw the news. They both went missing from shopping malls, at night. Cops waited the usual forty-eight to take the missing persons reports. The first was half a year ago, the Newport woman. We found her purse and the blood. That was a month after she bought nylons at Neiman-Marcus, walked out and disappeared forever."
Brighton squared his briefcase, fingered the latches, then sighed and folded his hands on it.
"Then yesterday late, the Laguna one. A week ago she went to the Laguna Hills Mall and vanished from sight. Hikers found her purse. The ground near it was soaked in blood again--like the first. It'll hit the news tomorrow--repeat this, serial that. More mayhem on the Ortega Highway. Both the victims--apparent victims--were good people, Tim. Young, attractive, bright women. People loved them. One married, one not."
Hess remembered the newspaper picture. One of those women who seems to have it all, then has nothing at all.
He looked up the crowded sidewalk toward his apartment and drank more coffee. It made his teeth ache but his teeth ached most of the time now anyway.
"So, it's two sites off the Ortega in Cleveland National Forest, about a hundred yards apart. They're eight miles this side of the county line. Two patches of blood-stained ground. Blood-drenched is how the crime scene investigator described it. Scraps of human viscera likely at the second one. Lab's working up the specimens. No bodies. No clothing. No bones. Nothing. Just the purses left behind, with the credit cards still in them, no cash, no driver's licenses. Some kind of fetish or signature, I guess. They're half a year apart, but it's got to be the same guy."
"Everyday women's purses?"
"If bloodstained and chewed by animals is everyday."
"What kind of animals?"
"Hell, Tim. I don't know."
Hess didn't expect an answer. It was not the kind of answer the sheriff-coroner of a county of 2.7 million needed to have. But he asked because scavengers have differing tastes and habits, and if you can establish what did the eating you can estimate how fresh it was. You could build a time line, confirm or dispute one. It was the kind of knowledge that you got from forty-two years as a deputy, thirty in homicide.
We are old men, Hess thought. The years have become hours and this is what we do with our lives.
He looked at the sheriff. Brighton wore the brown wool-mix off-the-rack sport coats that always make cops look like cops. Hess wore one too, though he was almost half a year off the force.
"Who's got it?" asked Hess.
"Well, Phil Kemp and Merci Rayborn got the call for the Newport Beach woman. Her name was Lael Jillson. That was back in February. So this should be theirs, too, but there's been some problems."
Hess knew something of the problems. "Kemp and Rayborn. I thought that was a bad combination."
"I know. We thought two opposites would make one whole, and we were wrong. I split them up a couple of months ago. Phil's fine with that. I wasn't sure who to put her with, to tell you the truth. Until now."
Hess knew something of Merci Rayborn. Her father was a longtime Sheriff Department investigator--burg/theft, fraud, then administration. Hess never knew him well. He had accepted a pink-labeled cigar when Merci was born, and he had followed her life through brief conversations with her father. To Hess she was more a topic than a person, in the way that children of co-workers often are.
At first she was a department favorite, but the novelty of a second-generation deputy wore off fast. There were a half dozen of them. Hess had found her to be aggressive, bright and a little arrogant. She'd told him she expected to run the homicide detail by age forty, the crimes against persons section by fifty, then be elected sheriff-coroner at fifty-eight. She was twenty-four at the time, working the jail as all Sheriff Department yearlings do. In the decade since then, she had not become widely liked. She seemed the opposite of her soft-spoken, modest father.
Hess thought it amusing how generations alternated traits so nimbly--he had seen it in his own nieces and nephews.
"Tim, she filed that lawsuit Friday afternoon. Went after Kemp for sexual harassment going back almost ten years. Physical stuff, she says. Well, by close of the workday two more female deputies had told the papers they were going to join in, file suits too. The lawyer's talking class action. So we've got a lot of deputies taking sides, the usual battle lines. I was sorry Rayborn did it, because basically she's a good investigator for being that young. I don't know what to make of those complaints. No one's ever complained about Phil before, except for him being Phil. Maybe that's enough these days. I don't know."
Hess saw the disappointment. For a public figure Brighton was a private man, and he bore his department's troubles as if they sprung from his own heart. He had always avoided conflict and wanted to be liked.
"I'll try to fly under all that."
"What did the dogs find?" he asked.
"They worked a couple of trails between the sites and a fire road about a hundred yards south of the highway. The two trails were real close to each other--a hundred yards or so. He parked and carried them through the brush. Did whatever he does. Carried them back out, apparently. Besides that, nothing."
"How much blood?"
"We'll run saturation tests on soil from the new scene. Janet Kane was her name. With the first, most of it's dried up and decomposed. The lab might get some useful DNA. They're trying."
"I thought you'd find them buried out there."
"So did I. Dogs, methane probe, chopper, zip. A pea-sized part of my brain says they still might be alive."
Hess paused a moment to register his opinion on the subject of this hope. Then, "We might want to draw a bigger circle."
"That's up to you and Merci. Merci and you, to be exact. Her show, you know."
Hess turned and stared out at the riptides lacing the pale green ocean. He could feel Brighton's eyes on him.
"You do look good," said the sheriff. The breeze brought his words back toward Hess.
"I feel good."
"You're tougher than a boiled owl, Tim."
Hess could hear the sympathy in Brighton's voice. He knew that Brighton loved him but the tone pricked his pride and his anger, too.
The two men stood and shook hands.
The sheriff opened his briefcase and handed Hess two green cardboard files secured by a thick rubber band. The top cover was stamped copy in red.
"There's some real ugly in this one, Tim."
"Stop by Personnel soon as you can. Marge'll have the paperwork ready."