John Katzenbach. A familiar name, but not a huge name. Or not yet. That may change with his new crime novel, What Comes Next. Katzenbach is a former journalist on the police beat for the Miami Times, and has been published steadily since his debut novel, In the Heat of Summer. That book won an Edgar for Best First Novel and was made into a fairly popular movie starring Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway (The Mean Season).
I am a total sucker for complicated characters, and the protagonist of What Comes Next is complicated to the max. Adrian Thomas is a newly retired university psychology professor who has two big shocks in one day. First, he is diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. The disease is irreversible and will kill him, but not necessarily quickly. What it will do quickly is rob him of his ability to reason. Worse, it may drive him insane. Hallucinations are common. Second, he witnesses what is surely a kidnapping. A teenage girl is there one moment, backpack and stuffed teddy bear on her back, pink hat on her head. A white van drives up and a moment later all there is in the road is the hat. But did it really happen?
No surprise to the reader, yes, it did. 16-year-old Jennifer Riggins has been kidnapped by a young couple in love who make their money and get their kicks by exploiting the dark side of voyeurism on a pay-to-view web site called What Comes Next. (Note to the publisher: The http://www.whatcomesnext.com web address is available. Total missed opportunity.)
Professor Thomas goes home, determined to kill himself before he loses the cognitive function that will allow him to do so. He sits alone with the gun his brother used in his own suicide, but can’t do it… the idea that he must attempt to save the girl prevents him.
This novel of psychological suspense is full of many complicated characters, several of whom — Professor Thomas’ brother, wife and son — are dead. How and why they died is revealed in their interactions with the professor. And although Audie (nickname for Adrian) knows that these manifestations are simply memories and projections, he finds them helpful in his quest, bringing him strength and offering concrete suggestions to solve the crime.
Also on hand is cop and single mother Terri Collins, who knows Jennifer and her family and suspects the girl has simply run away again, until Professor Thomas convinces her to consider the alternative. She works the cop angles while the professor considers the psychological side of things, enlisting a sex offender’s help to uncover Jennifer’s location.
The reader also sees the story from the perspective of the perverse couple, Linda and Michael, and Katzenbach does a great job of making them three-dimensional. It’s surprisingly easy to be interested in them and feel some sympathy for them. Even more effective are the scenes from Jennifer’s point of view. She’s scared but smart and resilient, and we root for her even as the voyeurs typing in their credit card numbers are rooting against her.
The book builds to a scary and stirring rescue effort as Jennifer is pushed to the bring and Professor Thomas falls apart – no spoiler alert because I will stop now, before revealing too much. Let it suffice to say that the epilogue is heart-warming but sad and not unexpected.
No surprise, I loved the book. It knocked me out. It was all I could do not to gulp it, jumping ahead to see what happens next. And in fact, I read way past my bedtime and probably missed some points along the way, just from sheer mental fuzziness. Sounds like re-reading is in order, which I will probably get to do in early 2013, because I’m predicting this one will make the final cut and be one of the five finalists for the MWA Edgar for Best Novel, awarded annually in April.
I’m heading out tomorrow afternoon for the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Very excited! I look forward to blogging about the experience, but even moreso, I’m looking forward to actually experiencing the experience.