Just when you thought that the serial killer subgenre had played itself out, something comes along to prove that maybe, just maybe, you were wrong. Wild Justice, Phillip Margolin's seventh and latest novel, is a case in point. Wild Justice is, indeed, a serial killer novel and has already begun receiving the obligatory comparisons to Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. And though no one -- not even the most charitable reviewer -- is likely to mistake him for Thomas Harris, Margolin is a resourceful, thoroughly professional storyteller who almost always offers his readers a devious, high-adrenaline good time.
Two very different characters dominate the early sections of the narrative. One is Amanda Jaffe, daughter -- and employee -- of Frank Jaffe, Portland, Oregon's, leading criminal defense specialist. Amanda is herself a newly licensed lawyer and is about to encounter some of the grimmer realities of the defense attorney's life. Her initial encounter comes in the form of Vincent Cardoni, prominent local physician and longtime client of her father. Cardoni, clearly, is a man on the edge. He has a history of violence, is prone to erratic public outbursts, and is struggling, futilely, with his escalating addiction to cocaine.
The narrative begins in earnest when Bobby Vasquez, an overzealous Portland Narcotics detective, receives an anonymous tip directing him to Cardoni's mountain cabin where, he is told, two kilos of uncut cocaine are awaiting distribution. Violating virtually every accepted procedure, Vasquez arrives at the cabin without backup, and without a warrant. After making a clearly illegal forced entry, he discovers -- not cocaine -- but a pair of severed heads stashed away on a refrigerator shelf. Subsequent investigation leads to a shallow grave not far from the cabin. Within the grave are the decaying remains of nine adult victims, most of whom bear the visible signs of torture. The physical evidence clearly implicates Vincent Cardoni, who is arrested, indicted, and bound over for trial.
The trial takes a spectacular -- and unexpected -- turn when the father/daughter defense team of Frank and Amanda Jaffe successfully impeaches the testimony of Bobby Vasquez, the state's principal witness. With Vasquez's testimony stricken from the record, the state's case collapses, and Vincent Cardoni goes free. Immediately afterward, he disappears from view, leaving a single grisly memento -- his own severed hand -- behind.
Four years later, with Cardoni now presumed dead, a second, almost identical series of torture/murders comes to light. This time, the evidence implicates another Portland physician: Justine Castle, Vincent Cardoni's embittered ex-wife. At this point, a host of new questions arise: Was Cardoni, as he had repeatedly claimed, the innocent victim of an incredibly elaborate frame-up? Could Justine Castle, whose previous marriages all ended violently, have committed both sets of murders? Could Vincent Cardoni have survived his dismemberment and returned to Portland, ready to resume his interrupted career as a serial murderer? Or could another, unidentified killer have designed and executed the entire scenario for undisclosed reasons of his own?
Margolin drives his story forward at a furious pace, using sheer narrative momentum to offset the impact of the novel's more implausible, over-the-top moments. Unlike Thomas Harris, Margolin is neither an elegant nor a particularly subtle writer. His prose is serviceable, without being either memorable or resonant. His dialogue is occasionally stiff and unconvincing, and his characters, as a rule, are considerably less interesting than the relentlessly bizarre circumstances in which they find themselves. Despite all this, Margolin does share at least one of Harris's characteristic virtues: He can tell a story that will keep you reading until the small hours of the morning. At some point in the narrative -- I'm not sure when -- the occasional infelicities of language and character receded into the distance, and the story began to carry me away.
Wild Justice may not achieve the status of either literature or art, but it succeeds quite handsomely on its own, more modest terms: as a straightforward, unpretentious piece of popular entertainment. Readers in search of a gruesome good time need look no further. Wild Justice is a wild, expertly constructed ride that delivers exactly what it promises. It just might be (and I mean this respectfully) the beach book of the year.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has just been published by Subterranean Press .