Jeffery Deaver's 1997 thriller The Bone Collector gets a new lease on life, courtesy of a high-profile film adaptation starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. I haven't seen the movie, but I can vouch for the effectiveness of the novel. The Bone Collector isn't, by any stretch, world-class literature, but it's an absorbing, high-energy performance that features great technical expertise, some truly devious plotting, and one of the most unusual heroes in modern crime fiction: Lincoln Rhyme, forensic genius and former head of the NYPD's Central Investigation and Resource Department.
Lincoln Rhyme is a legend in his field, the man who literally wrote the book on forensic analysis of crime scenes. He is also a quadriplegic, his spine having been irreversibly damaged during a cave-in at an underground murder site. As the novel opens, Lincoln has reached the end of his emotional tether and wants only to die. Unable to endure the constraints and humiliations of his new condition, he has enlisted the services of a professional "euthanasist" to help him on his way. At the eleventh hour, with oblivion within his grasp, Lincoln is visited by a pair of detectives who offer him something he can't quite refuse: a new -- and unusual -- case.
On the previous evening, a man and woman returning from a business trip had been kidnapped at JFK airport, apparently by their taxi driver. The man's body -- shot, mutilated, then buried alive -- has just been found by an NYPD patrol officer named Amelia Sachs, who closes off the crime scene and secures the available evidence. Included among that evidence are some enigmatic clues -- a scrap of newsprint, a ball of asbestos, a rusted iron bolt -- that appear to have been placed deliberately at the scene. With the expert assistance of a reluctant Lincoln Rhyme, police follow these clues to the location of the abducted woman. They arrive just minutes too late to save the woman, who has been murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Near her body is a second series of "staged" forensic clues, pointing to the location of the next unknown victim.
Against his will, Lincoln finds himself at the center of a manhunt that interrupts his planned departure and transforms his apartment into an impromptu forensic lab. Using patrolwoman Amelia Sachs as his eyes and legs, Lincoln engages in a sustained battle of wits with an unknown killer who leads him to a series of crime scenes, each of which is salted with evidence pointing to the next crime scene and the next victim. During the course of this macabre, extended game -- which lasts for about 36 hours and is played out against a backdrop of political infighting and jurisdictional disputes -- Lincoln saves a number of lives, including his own. In the end, he comes face-to-face with an elusive -- and very familiar -- madman whose pathological obsession has its origin in Lincoln's own past.
Although the plot of The Bone Collector occasionally strains credibility, it is still a compelling, cleverly-conceived narrative that achieves moments of great tension and creates something new and vital out of the marriage of two popular subgenres: the serial killer novel, as practiced by Thomas Harris and his numerous imitators; and the forensic crime novel, as practiced by Patricia Cornwell, Ridley Pearson, and Kathy Reichs, to name just a few. Ultimately, it is the range and depth of Deaver's forensic expertise that gives The Bone Collector its peculiar, undeniable fascination.
In crime scene after crime scene, Lincoln -- operating through his observant, mobile assistant, Amelia -- uncovers two distinct types of physical evidence: staged evidence deliberately left behind and other, unintended bits of evidence that lead, in incremental stages, to the killer's home base. Watching Lincoln and his cohorts interpret this evidence -- sometimes intuitively, sometimes with the aid of assorted technological marvels -- is the greatest of The Bone Collector's many pleasures. Like Michael Crichton, Deaver manages to integrate a vast amount of research into a coherent, involving novel without either lecturing the reader or crossing the invisible line into pedantry. It's a difficult trick to perform, and Deaver brings it off with impressive -- and deceptive -- ease.
It will be interesting, of course, to see what Hollywood makes of all this. But even if the movie is an unqualified disaster, readers will still have the Deaver original to return to. Lincoln Rhyme, for all his problems, is an engaging, complex character and may prove to be surprisingly durable. He has already made two return appearances (as the central figure of The Coffin Dancer and as a minor player in The Devil's Teardrop), and I hope Deaver sees fit to revisit him, at least occasionally. Unlike the majority of series heroes, he brings a depth of knowledge and a freshness of perspective to the traditional novel of detection. I look forward to encountering him again.