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A series of seemingly random murders along a fifty-mile stretch of the rugged northern California coast, committed by an unknown dubbed by the media the Coastline Killer. A young couple with marital problems, Shelby and Jay Macklin, who decide to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's at a friend's remote coastal cottage. Two couples in a neighboring home whose relationships are thick with festering menace. A fierce winter storm that leads to a night of unrelenting terror. These are the main ingredients ...
A series of seemingly random murders along a fifty-mile stretch of the rugged northern California coast, committed by an unknown dubbed by the media the Coastline Killer. A young couple with marital problems, Shelby and Jay Macklin, who decide to spend the week between Christmas and New Year's at a friend's remote coastal cottage. Two couples in a neighboring home whose relationships are thick with festering menace. A fierce winter storm that leads to a night of unrelenting terror. These are the main ingredients in Bill Pronzini's chilling and twist-filled tale about the hidden nature of crime and its motives.
Marital difficulties turn murderous in Pronzini's suspenseful departure from the estimable Nameless Detective series (Schemers, 2009, etc.).
Jay Macklin loves his wife, knows she's fallen out of love with him and doesn't blame her. It's in the hope that his marriage can be saved that he decides on a getaway that will allow them to rediscover and rekindle their love. Just the two of them—alone and undistracted, between Christmas and New Year's, in a remote vacation house somewhere on the Northern California coastline—reassessing how good they once had it. That turns out to be a frail hope indeed. Not only does therapeutic isolation morph into self-imprisonment, but the Macklins' only neighbors are anything but neighborly. Brian Lomax routinely beats and terrorizes his wife. The Lomax houseguests, Paula and Gene Decker, drink too much and snipe at each other as if Edward Albee had invented them. Further darkening the atmosphere is the lurking menace of a sociopath run amok, a preservationist transmogrified by his sense of mission into a five-time (at least) serial murderer the media have dubbed the Coastline Killer. It's just as cold and bleak inside the vacation house as outside—a dire prologue to a sudden, furious storm that ratchets up the violence while bringing emotions to a boil.
Taut, spare and seamlessly plotted. The real accomplishment, however, is the villain of the piece, portrayed sympathetically but without sentimentality.
Macklin thought, Damn! and flicked on the windshield wipers. It was dark now, just after five, and the twisty two-lane road glistened wetly in the Prius's headlight beams. No other traffic in sight; there'd been only a smattering of cars in either direction since they passed through Jenner.
Beside him, Shelby shifted position and spoke for the first time in nearly half an hour. "I knew it," she said. "I knew this was a bad idea."
"It's only a light drizzle."
"Followed by heavier rain, followed by a storm with high winds, followed by unsettled weather that probably means another storm by New Year's Eve."
"The forecasters aren't always right."
"Want to bet they're not this time?"
Macklin glanced over at her. She was huddled low on the seat, her arms folded under her breasts as if she were cold despite the cranked-up heater. In the shadowy glow of the dash lights she looked younger than thirty-five, the same effect as soft room lights and candlelight. It was only in bright light, harsh light, that the age, worry, and stress lines were evident. The years she'd spent on the ambulance, all the carnage and death she'd seen and had to deal with, were partly responsible. But mainly he was to blame. Twelve years of marriage to him had sucked the youth out of her. And he hated himself for it, even though he'd had damn little control over the process.
"We should have left earlier," she said. "Driving in wet weather in daylight is bad enough. Why didn't you wake me sooner?"
"Three straight night shifts. You needed the rest."
"Five whole days off. I could've slept in the car."
"Okay, I'm sorry. You're right, we should've left earlier."
Silence for a time. Then, "I still think this is a bad idea. I don't see why you're so set on it."
You will soon enough, he thought. "We needed to get away."
"Oh, we did?"
"Just the two of us. We haven't been anywhere alone together in almost two years."
"We're alone together at home. A four-hundred-mile round-trip in the dead of winter just to spend four days in an isolated seaside cottage—it just doesn't make a lot of sense to me."
"Four days free of charge, don't forget that."
"Holiday charity from good old Ben Coulter."
"You know Ben's not that way. He's only owned the cottage a year and a half and he likes having people stay there when he's not using it."
"Must be nice to be rich," Shelby said.
"Ben's not rich, not by today's standards."
"A successful software business, a house in Los Altos Hills, a second home on the Mendocino coast, a daughter in a private school—that's rich by my standards."
"Well, anyway, we'll have these next few days to ourselves. At home ... distractions, interruptions, another dull New Year's party somewhere, friends showing up unannounced—"
"What friends, besides Mary Ellen and John, Ben and Kate?"
"Come on, we have more than that."
"Acquaintances, yes, not what I call friends."
The distinction wasn't worth arguing. "Besides," he said, "we didn't really enjoy Christmas."
"It was all right."
"But not very festive."
"How could it be, the way things have gone this year?"
It wasn't meant as a jab at him, but it might as well have been. The way things had gone this year. Losing his office manager's job when the recession forced Conray Foods to downsize. Not being able to find another, even something blue collar that paid decent wages, because he was overqualified—six months now and counting. Even Ben couldn't help him; he knew nothing about software technology and there were no office staff openings at Coulter, Inc. And now this other thing ... what would Shelby say if he just blurted it out, right here in the dark car? But he wouldn't. Couldn't. That was why this time alone together was so important, to help soften the blow. Maybe soften it, if the next four days went better than this one had so far.
He said, trying to sound cheerful, "Even if the weather's bad, it'll be nice at the cottage."
"You've seen the photos. Oceanfront, all the amenities."
"In the middle of nowhere."
"Three miles to the nearest town—hardly the middle of nowhere."
"Town, Jay? With a population of ninety-seven? That's not even a hamlet."
"Remember the driving trip to Oregon? We came back down the coast and you liked the area then, you said it was beautiful up here."
"That was ten years ago. And in the summer, with the sun shining."
He didn't want to argue; that was the last thing he wanted. Best to keep his mouth shut. Shelby's mood was prickly enough as it was.
"You'd better turn the wipers on full," she said. "Your drizzle is turning into a downpour."
The wind-driven rain pelted down with increasing velocity the farther north they traveled. The serpentine coast highway grew slick, runoff puddles forming in low-lying areas along its verges. Macklin lowered his speed to fifty, to half that on some of the sharper curves. The road remained deserted for long intervals; the few cars he saw seemed to be mostly highway patrol and county sheriff's cruisers.
His neck and shoulders had begun to ache a bit. Once he thought of asking Shelby to take over; she was a better driver than him, not so overly cautious in conditions like these. But he didn't do it. He felt all right, not too fatigued. Nothing to be gained in shifting the burden to her.
They passed through a handful of widely spaced little towns and villages, all of which had an abandoned aspect like illuminated ghosts. Hardly any tourists this time of year, on a Sunday in weather like this, and the residents forted up for the night. Most of the roadside businesses were closed, taverns and a few restaurants and lodging places the only ones open. Night-lights, neon signs, leftover Christmas decorations—all shone fuzzy and remote through the curtain of rain.
Macklin checked the odometer again. Not much farther now—another ten miles to Seacrest, the nearest village, and another three beyond that to the cottage. He'd memorized the landmarks and mileage distances Ben had given him, but when they got to Seacrest he'd go through the mental checklist again to make sure he had them all.
Shelby hadn't said a word since their conversation after the rain started. He glanced over at her again. She was sitting motionless, hands resting palms up on her thighs. Asleep? No. Her head moved slightly and in the dash lights he could see the faint gleam of one opened eye. Brooding, maybe, about some of the same things that had been on his mind lately. About the coming New Year, their financial problems, their life together and all that had gone wrong with it.
It wasn't that she was easy to read—everybody had depths that no one else could fathom—but after twelve years he was familiar with her moods and the way her mind worked. Until recently she'd been more or less open about herself, her feelings, her needs and concerns. The exact opposite of him. All his life he'd been a closed book, not only to her and others but to himself. Not by conscious choice; it was as if the pages in the Jay Macklin book were glued down and he couldn't pry them loose no matter how hard he tried.
Part of the reason was his childhood—his weak-willed mother, his coldly indifferent father, the fact that he hadn't made friends easily and wasn't popular, at least not until his high school peers found out just how good a baseball player he was; and even then he'd remained the kind of kid who mostly hangs in the background, noticed by a few but ignored by most.
But there was more to it than that, a part of himself he'd never been able to understand or control—an almost pathological need to keep essential pieces of himself hidden away, even from the woman he loved. It wasn't a matter of privacy, or a safety mechanism, or fear of revealing too much or too little of himself. It wasn't anything that he could define. A genetic quirk, a birth defect. Bad wiring. Every time he tried to put meaningful thoughts or feelings into words, it was as if his brain short-circuited and rendered him mute.
He knew this was what had laid the foundation for the wall between Shelby and him. His inability to give her children, the business failure, the job loss six months ago, the days spent apart because of the demands of her EMT job—they were just bricks stacked on top of the foundation. You can't hide from the person you live with, much less from yourself, and expect a relationship to roll smoothly along and outlast the succession of crises that had plagued theirs.
Well, he wouldn't be hiding this latest load of bricks much longer. Four days from now, five at the most, he'd gird himself and dump it all over her because he had no other choice.
The rain seemed to be letting up a little, though the cloud ceiling was low and gouts of heavy mist rolled in from the ocean close by on their left. A road sign ahead indicated a series of sharp descending turns that shouldn't be taken at more than twenty-five. He was into the second switchback when he saw the sweep of oncoming headlights. The other driver was going too fast for the conditions, crowding the center of the highway, his headlights on high bright. Shelby jerked erect, bracing herself against the dash, as Macklin swung the wheel hard right. The other driver also corrected in time; the car hissed past them with not much room to spare.
Macklin said, "Christ, that was close."
"Damn idiot. Cops all over the road tonight, but none around when you need one."
"Must be a lot of accidents on this highway, especially in weather like this. I wonder what kind of EMT service they have up here."
"Let's hope we don't find out."
Shelby resettled herself. "How much farther?" They were coming out of the last switchback, onto a stretch that hooked around a deep inlet bordered on the north by a high, sheer cliff. Strong waves lashed at the base of the cliff, sending up huge jets and fans of spray. Here and there along the cliff top and the wooded ridge above it, lights glowed mistily.
"Not far now," he said. "That should be Seacrest up there."
It was. Grocery store, cafe, antique and crafts store, combination gas station, garage, and towing service—all closed, even though it wasn't yet seven o'clock. Small inn down in a hollow and a short row of bed-and-breakfasts on one side of the highway, none of which was doing much if any business. Ben had told him Seacrest had once been a thriving lumber town, one of the larger doghole ports along the coast where milled timber was loaded onto steamers bound south to San Francisco, north to Seattle. You wouldn't know it from the way it looked now—
"Speak of the devil," Shelby said.
"Parking lot next to the grocery."
Macklin saw it then—a county sheriff's cruiser, dark, parked just outside the building's shadow. "Watching for speeders, probably. Why the hell didn't he nab that asshole down below?"
"The asshole probably wasn't speeding when he came through here."
They were out of the village as quickly as they'd come into it, dropping down again past a scatter of private homes. After that the dark thread of the highway ran through stands of trees, past open spaces spotted with clumps of gorse and pampas grass on the seaward side.
Another half mile, and the rain came pounding down again. Macklin slowed to thirty, hunching forward, looking for the first of Ben's landmarks—an old and thickly overgrown country cemetery. Pretty soon it came up on the left and he checked the odometer: 2.1 miles to go. The highway cut inland past the cemetery, then back up toward the sea until it was running along the rim of a section of barren cliffs. Guardrails indicated a long drop to the rough seas below.
Second landmark: a meadow bisected by a eucalyptus-l ined driveway leading to a group of ranch buildings. Six-tenths of a mile from there. The highway curved inland again, then back to where dense woods replaced the open space along the cliff tops. Almost there. He began looking for the signpost that would read Tobias Creek Road. The next bluffside turn beyond Tobias Creek was Ocean Point Lane, where Ben's cottage was located.
The signpost should have been easy to spot, but it wasn't. In the darkness and downpour, he missed it.
He knew he had when the odometer clicked off an extra tenth of a mile. He asked Shelby if she'd seen the Tobias Creek sign.
"No. Gone too far?"
"I think so. Better find a place to turn around."
Another tenth of a mile before he found one where he could make the turn safely, then two-tenths of a mile back to the south. The Prius's headlights picked out a handful of turnings both left and right, but no signpost.
"Shit," he said. "Where is it?"
"Don't tell me we're lost."
"We're not lost. It's just that I don't see Tobias Creek Road."
"Maybe we haven't come to it yet."
"It's supposed to be right along here."
"Maybe the odometer is off."
"No. All the other landmarks checked."
Macklin turned into the nearest side road, but it was unmarked and barred by a gate. He backed out and made another slow pass along the highway. Still no sign for Tobias Creek Road. Or for Ocean Point Lane.
Shelby said, "We can't keep driving around all night looking."
"There must be houses around here, somebody to ask ..."
"You see any lights? I don't."
"Dammit, I wish we had GPS."
"Well, we don't." She was quiet for a few seconds, then she chuckled in a wry way. "Maybe there is one around when we need one."
"A cop. The sheriff's deputy parked in Seacrest. He ought to know where Tobias Creek Road and Ocean Point Lane are."
"It's three miles back to Seacrest. And he might have moved by now."
"If he's not there, we'll ask directions at one of the B&Bs. Unless you have a better suggestion." Her voice had an edge that said she was running out of patience.
He said, "No, no better suggestion. Back to Seacrest."
Only three miles, but it seemed a lot longer than five minutes before the village lights appeared. He slowed to a crawl as he passed the row of B&Bs. Ahead the night-lights and scattered Christmas decorations swam up blurrily through the rain.
"He's still there," Shelby said.
When Macklin made the turn into the grocery parking lot, the Prius's headlights flicked over the darkened patrol car and briefly picked out a man-shape behind the steering wheel. He eased to stop alongside, started to roll down his window. The reaction to that surprised him. Instead of following suit, the deputy fired up his engine and jumped the cruiser ahead and around behind them at an angle. Then it stopped again, blocking the exit, its lights still off.
"What's he doing?"
Macklin shook his head, looking into the rearview mirror. Nothing happened for fifteen seconds or so. Then the cruiser's door popped open and the deputy came out, moving quickly away from the vehicle until he was ten yards to Macklin's side of the Prius. He stopped there, standing in a slight, stiff crouch, one tail of his black rain slicker swept back and his hand on his holstered weapon. The other hand held a six-cell flashlight, which he raised and waggled in a commanding, get-out-of-the-car gesture.
Macklin hesitated. They'd brought an umbrella, but it was somewhere among the cartons and luggage in the backseat. The hell with it; the deputy was still gesturing. He got out, pulling his coat collar up tight under his chin.
Immediately the flashlight beam stabbed out and pinned him. He blinked against the light, the icy bite of wind and rain in his face; lifted an arm to shield his eyes. The beam held on him for a few seconds before it lowered. The deputy shortened the distance between them to five feet, the lower halves of his slicker billowing around him like half-folded wings. Under the brim of an oilskin-covered cap, his face was young, pale-featured, tightly drawn. A thick mustache bristled on his upper lip.
Bewildered, Macklin said, "Anything wrong, officer?" He had to almost shout to make himself heard above the scree of the wind.
The deputy moved again without answering, past him and close to the Prius. He shined the flash through the driver's window. Shelby's white face appeared, then disappeared as the light flicked off. The deputy seemed to relax a little as he turned toward Macklin, but when he spoke, his voice was curt and officious.
Excerpted from THE HIDDEN by BILL PRONZINI Copyright © 2010 by Bill Pronzini. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted April 28, 2011
It certainly started off interesting. It had all the right elements of suspense and it got me reading further into it. Then it stops. The plot suddenly focuses mainly on the deteriorating relationship between Jay and Shelby and the killer suddenly disappears from the story. Huh? why? and the suspense was just getting along fine! However! I actually liked the spotlight on the two of them. It did provide character development despite the lack of suspense.
As the story progressed, I found myself losing interest. New characters were introduced so the reader is provided with some potential suspects. I didn't think much of any of them though. They seemed strange, and little out of place and for a minute I thought perhaps it was going to take a turn for the creepy and give the plot a more sinster feel. Unfortunately, I was wrong and it felt as if the characters were placed there out of convenience without any real thought to them.
Towards the end of the novel I just wanted this to be over with, and when the killer was revealed I wasn't interested in the story anymore. Honestly, I was wondering more about the outcome of Shelby and Jay's future instead of the mystery. Their marital situation just seemed much more interesting than the mystery itself. It had a lot of potential in the beginning, yet it fell short of its mark. I nearly didn't finish the book but as it's only about 200 pages I decided to get it over with anyway. I don't think I can recommend this to anyone, as there's plenty of better suspense novels out there.
Posted November 30, 2010
No text was provided for this review.