Written by Dave Zeltserman — Dave Zeltserman’s Monster was the first book I read by the author and I was blown away. So, when I got my hands on A Killer’s Essence I was ready for a great story, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. Zeltserman is the author of more than 10 novels and when it comes to his crime stories, this one is a great place to start.
A woman is found on the street, brutally shot, with her fingers cut off, rings taken, and the police at first think it’s a robbery since her earrings have been pulled from her ears. There’s no good time for a murder, and homicide detective Stan Green is called to the crime scene, interrupting a night in an upscale hotel with his girlfriend Bambi. She’s not happy, but it can’t be avoided. Green arranged for his partner Rich Grissini to cover for him, but he’s in the hospital after an accident. The detective is shocked by the over-the-top violence of this murder, and after watching surveillance tapes realises there was a witness. When they find out who their witness is, his hope soon turns to disappointment. Zachary Lynch was pre-med when he had an accident that caused his brain to be deprived of oxygen for six minutes. It’s thought that his damaged occipital lobe causes him to hallucinate. Can he be a reliable witness?
Green’s first impressions of Zachary are of a very awkward young man who is obviously damaged, but he’s keen to find out if there’s any way he can identify their killer. Zachary tries not to look at Green directly, but Green notices that Zachary observes him using a webcam and computer screen. It turns out that Zachary sees people differently. To him, some people look like monsters and he also seems to see emotions reflected a certain way, but he can see how a person truly looks on his computer screen. This doesn’t bode well for their investigation but when Green finds out that Zachary’s perceptions of people once he sees them remain the same, he grows more hopeful.
To complicate matters, Green’s ex-wife Cheryl has moved out of the city, taking their two kids all the way to Rhode Island. Seeing them hasn’t been easy. Cheryl has remarried and Green feels she’s poisoned his kids against him. Plans are constantly cut short or cancelled due to his job, and Cheryl is threatening to ask for sole custody, which would be devastating for him. His children also don’t like Bambi. Frankly, I don’t blame them. I can get past a name. One shouldn’t judge on a name. However, Bambi is the kind of person who really needs to be taken down a notch. When she doesn’t get her way she berates Green about nearly everything ranging from his job, to his character, to his small apartment, which she’s been more than happy to occupy for almost a year. When she actually leaves him at one point, you’ll find yourself hoping she won’t come back.
There’s also some friction with Green’s boss, and he’s worried about his partner whose condition is deteriorating. Meanwhile, the killer is escalating activities. An attractive FBI profiler joins the investigation and predicts that the killing won’t stop until the perpetrator finishes his ‘story’, whatever that might be. I hoped that the profiler would provide a welcome distraction from the awful Bambi and the pain that Green suffers from his divorce.
A Killer’s Essence is mainly a police procedural, but the author weaves in storylines that really fill out Stan Green as a man, not just a cop. You feel his frustration and pain when it comes to his children, and the relationship that he establishes with the kind, awkward Zachary over the course of the investigation is rather endearing. Green feels some kinship with Zachary because they share something, which you learn more about through the course of the story. The humanity in our hero is also constantly on display. For example, when Green meets a shop girl who knows Zachary he initially describes her as having a square build and an even squarer face. However, when she smiles, her face lights up, and Green can immediately see why Zachary is so smitten with her. It’s a very sweet moment in a book that covers some pretty upsetting subjects. Zeltserman never descends into hopelessness and you’ll never quite know if Zachary’s ability to see a person’s true self is due to a neurological disorder or something ‘other’, but this is certainly not a supernatural novel.
A note to baseball lovers: A Killer’s Essence takes place during the 2004 Yankees-Red Sox series, which adds a bit of local flavor to the book. I’d love to see another mystery featuring Stan Green, and Zelterman’s spare, no frills prose gives this just the right touch of noir.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars