The Barnes & Noble Review
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 .
Read an Excerpt
A lightning flash illuminated the Learjet that waited on the runway of the private airstrip moments before a thunderclap startled Dr. Clifford Grant. Grant scanned the darkness for signs of life, but there were no other cars in the lot and no one moving on the tarmac. When he checked his watch his hand trembled. It was 11:35. Breach's man was five minutes late. The surgeon stared at the glove compartment. A sip from his flask would steady his nerves, but he knew where that would lead. He had to be thinking clearly when they brought the money.
Large drops fell with increasing speed. Grant turned on his wipers at the same moment a huge fist rapped on his passenger door. The doctor jerked back and stared. For an instant he thought the rain was distorting his vision; but the man glaring at him through the window was really that big, a monster with a massive, shaved skull and a black knee-length leather coat.
“Open the door,” the giant commanded, his voice harsh and frightening.
Grant obeyed instantly. A chill wind blew a fine spray into the car.
“Where is it?”
“In the trunk,” Grant said, the words catching in his throat as he jerked his thumb backward. The man tossed an attaché case into the car and slammed the door shut. Water beaded the smooth sides of the briefcase and made the brass locks glisten. The money! Grant wondered how much the recipient was going to pay for the heart, if he and his partner were receiving a quarter of a million dollars.
Two rapid thumps brought Grant around. The giant was pounding on the trunk. He had forgotten to pop the release. As Grant reached for the latch another lightningflash lit the view through his rear window'and the cars that had appeared from nowhere. Without thinking, he floored the accelerator and cranked the wheel. The giant dove away with amazing agility as the sedan careened across the asphalt, leaving the smell of burning rubber. Grant was vaguely aware of the screech of metal on metal as he blasted past one of the police cars and took out part of a chain-link fence. Shots were fired, glass shattered and the car tipped briefly on two wheels before righting itself and speeding into the night.
The next thing Clifford Grant remembered clearly was banging frantically on his partner's back door. A light came on, a curtain moved and his partner glared at him in disbelief before opening the door.
“What are you doing here?”
“The police,” Grant gasped. “A raid.”
“At the airfield?”
“Let me in, for God's sake. I've got to get in.”
Grant stumbled inside.
“Is that the money?”
Grant nodded and staggered to a seat at the kitchen table.
“Let me have it.”
The doctor pushed the briefcase across the table. It opened with a clatter of latches, revealing stacks of soiled and crumpled hundred-dollar bills bound by rubber bands. The lid slammed shut.
“Wait. Got to . . . catch my breath.”
“Of course. And relax. You're safe now.”
Grant hunched over, his head between his knees.
“I didn't make the delivery.”
“One of Breach's men put the money on the front seat. The heart was in the trunk. He was about to open it when I saw police cars. I panicked. I ran.”
“And the heart is . . . ?”
“Still in the trunk.”
“Are you telling me that you stiffed Martin Breach?”
“We'll call him,” Grant said. “We'll explain what happened.”
A harsh laugh answered him. “Clifford, you don't explain something like this to Breach. Do you understand what you've done?”
“You have nothing to worry about,” Grant answered bitterly. “Martin has no idea who you are. I'm the one who has to worry. We'll just have to return the money. We didn't do anything wrong. The police were there.”
“You're certain he doesn't know who I am?”
“I never mentioned your name.”
Grant's head dropped into his hands and he began to tremble. “He'll come after me. Oh, God.”
“You don't know that for sure,” his partner answered in a soothing tone. “You're just frightened. Your imagination is running wild.”
The shaking grew worse. “I don't know what to do.”
Strong fingers kneaded the tense muscles of Grant's neck and shoulders.
“The first thing you've got to do is get hold of yourself.”
The hands felt so comforting. It was what Grant needed, the touch and concern of another human being.
“Breach won't bother you, Clifford. Trust me, I'll take care of everything.”
Grant looked up hopefully.
“I know some people,” the voice assured him calmly.
“People who can talk to Breach?”
“Yes. So relax.”
Grant's head fell forward from relief and fatigue. The adrenaline that had powered him through the past hour was wearing off.
“You're still tense. What you need is a drink. Some ice-cold Chivas. What do you say?”
The true extent of Grant's terror could be measured by the fact that he had not even thought of taking a drink since he saw the police through his rear window. Suddenly every cell in his body screamed for alcohol. The fingers lifted; a cupboard door closed; Grant heard the friendly clink of ice bouncing against glass. Then a drink was in his hand. He gulped a quarter of the contents and felt the burn. Grant closed his eyes and raised the cold glass to his feverish forehead.
“There, there,” his partner said as a hand slapped smartly against the base of Grant's neck. Grant jerked upright, confused by the sharp sting of the ice pick as it passed through his brain stem with textbook precision.
The doctor's head hit the tabletop with a thud. Grant's partner smiled with satisfaction. Grant had to die. Even thinking about returning a quarter of a million dollars was ridiculous. What to do with the heart, though? The surgeon sighed. The procedure to remove it had been performed flawlessly, but it was all for nothing. Now the organ would have to be cut up, pureed and disposed of as soon as Grant took its place in the trunk. Wild Justice. Copyright © by Phillip Margolin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.