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.