Jeffery Deaver originally studied journalism and he employs an unfussy, nuts and bolts prose style that partially explains why he has recently followed a long line of authors – including John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and (in a junior capacity) Charlie Higson - in continuing the literary adventures of James Bond with the forthcoming publication of Carte Blanche. Deaver is also, like Fleming, drawn to pulpy plots involving grand schemes from master professional criminals and heroes with well-hidden human frailties and vulnerabilities. In other respects though he is very different from Fleming, most notably his trademark love of puzzles and endless twists and turns and his general avoidance of descriptive passages. Undeniably though he is a very capable writer of thrillers as well as a best-selling author (the two don’t always go together, let’s face it).
He is best know for the series featuring Lincoln Rhyme, a forensic detective who, being a paraplegic, is in a very real sense a ‘armchair detective’. He was played by Denzel Washington in The Bone Collector, a reasonably successful movie adaptation of the first of the series. Rhyme makes a guest appearance in The Devil’s Teardrop, but the main character is Parker Kincaid, a graphologist working in Washington DC who retired from active FBI duties to keep his two young children out of harm’s way.Following its appearance in a top 20 list over at the fine In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel blog, I decided to pick up this novel by Deaver which was first published in 1999 and is actually set one the eve of the new millennium. Time and place are in fact crucial for what proves to be that comparative literary rarity – a suspense novel that more or less takes place in real time (minus a brief epilogue set a few hours after the end of the main story). Real-time thrillers are a little more common in the cinema, notable examples including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), the Johnny Depp’s conspiracy movie Nick of Time (1995), Running Time (1997), the Bruce Campbell curiosity shot in black and white and presented so as to appear to have been shot in single unbroken take and the Al Pacino clunker 88 Minutes (2007); however, it’s the 24 series on TV that has made the approach popular. But in literature it’s an ambitious and highly unusual ploy. The only other full-length genre example I can think of that has tried it recently is Gerald’s Game (1992) by Stephen King, which was an homage to a fairly little-known novel by Joel Townsley Rogers (more about him soon) entitled The Stopped Clock (1958), which is about 100,000 words long but with all the plot taking place in less than an hour as a badly beaten woman tries to barricade herself inside her house before her assailant returns.
In The Devil’s Teardrop a deranged gunman known only as the ‘Digger’ mows down dozens of people at an underground station at 9AM on 31 December in Washington DC while his partner, who controls him, leaves a ransom note at the mayor’s office demanding $20 million before 4PM when the ‘Digger’ will act again. Unfortunately, even though the mayor decides to pay, the man delivering the ransom note is killed in a road accident and the FBI realise that the ’Digger’, unaware that his partner is dead, will continue to follow his instructions to the letter and perpetrate a new random atrocity every four hours. All the FBI have to go on is the original ransom note, which is where an initially wary Kincaid comes in.
Kincaid is desperate to shield his children from violence, not least because that was one of the reasons he was given sole custody of them – only now his ex-wife wants to regain custody, so when he reluctantly agrees to help the FBI he only does so if they keep his involvement secret. This becomes harder and harder as the mayor’s office, TV journalists and an investigative journalist with his own grudge to settle all start to exploit the situation for their own ends, all adding to the suspense. Deaver has great fun in extrapolating evidence from the minutest, even microscopic, pieces of evidence but also provides sympathetic portraits of the FBI team, with the young Margaret Lukas, unexpectedly put in charge when her boss is absent, getting the lion’s share of the attention.
This is a long book but the tension never really flags as Kincaid gets ever closer to uncovering the identity of the mastermind behind the murders and finding ‘Digger’, his instrument. In this sense the novel is highly reminiscent of Ellery Queen’s novels in which a secret manipulator organises events to ensure the desired outcome but letting others do the dirty work. In addition Deaver uses another of Queen’s patented techniques – a false conclusion followed by a real one. The latter is a bit of a Deaver speciality and sometimes his ingenuity in creating last-minute additional twists can be a bit of a liability. In The Vanished Man (2003) for instance, as the book deals with a villain dubbed ‘the conjuror’, there is a lot of stage management akin to that of a magic show but the relentless number of twists, feints and instances of misdirection, while clever, do become slightly exhausting. In The Devil’s Teardrop the book seems to come to its natural conclusion at the 400-page mark just as events reach midnight, but suddenly Deaver, with great skill, kickstarts the plot again with a well concealed villain finally making an appearance.
Once that part of the narrative is seemingly sorted, and a truly spectacular body count arrived at, Deaver then can’t resist trying to pull off a quadruple bluff with yet another surprise ending, which for this reader was one too many, relying as it does on several highly improbably elements and an ironic deus ex machina which is a bit silly and which also has the effect of making the heroes of the story appear to be just a bit incompetent. But this only affects the last 15 pages of the book and are really only a minor irritant, as is a highly misleading description of the road accident that starts the story – on re-examination I am a bit concerned that Deaver really does cheat a bit.
These a minor quibbles however in an exciting story full of clever reversals and one very well placed bit of misdirection towards the end that is highly entertaining. In storytelling terms this is definitely a cut above.