Detective Jacob Striker is upset when he attends the scene of a suicide and realises he knows the victim, Mandy Gill. When he notices a camera set up outside the scene, and then has a tangle with a mysterious lurker, he is pretty sure it was not a suicide at all.
The investigation leads him and his partner, Detective Felicia Santos, to a mental health facility run by Dr. Erich Ostermann. Ostermann is a bit strange, and his family isn't much better. Striker is caught in a bureaucratic nightmare as he tries to obtain information from various sources.
As it happens, a shrink that Striker was seeing after the suicide of his wife is also a patient of Ostermann, after having a mental breakdown of her own. She has now gone missing, and Striker fears that she may be the next victim in the conspiracy he is uncovering.
Striker is contacted by the villian - who calls himself The Adder - who wants Striker to be his latest victim in a ritual he calls The Beautiful Escape.
Snakes & Ladders is an improvement over Slater's debut The Survivor, but still suffers from the fact that Striker is an arrogant asshole. Seriously, it is extremely difficult to spend all my time with a character who thinks he's always right and is God's gift to the world. The fact that he is almost always right kind of nips any suspense in the bud. Maybe if he was a bit more human and less of an over-confidant tool, there might be some drama and mystery over whether he is pursuing the right lead or not. Instead, Striker just marches around everywhere with the knowledge that all his hunches will play out exactly as he predicts.
Another thing I noticed was the fact that nearly every single chapter ends with some reference to where Striker and Santos are headed, or how long it will take them to get there, or that they were running out of time. It gets very repetitive.
The rhyme and reason behind the killer and their motives was much more interesting in this go-round, however. Instead of the inner turmoil of some turd who murders children (as found in The Survivor), we get a killer with a complex history and a motive that is believably derived from their circumstances. This believability kept me involved in the story whenever I was in danger of giving up because of Striker's assholery. The eventual revelation regarding the villian and their associates and their motives was clever and unexpected.
There was also a little more action thrown into the mix to keep things lively between the more routine aspects of the police procedural. Sure, Striker and Santos have to question a ridiculous amount of people, but there is at least a palpable sense of danger lurking throughout the proceedings, as our heroes have a couple of close encounters with death in the course of their investigation.
While the cat is let out of the bag a little early (with at least 100 pages left), Slater actually manages to up the suspense as the possible actions of his characters become increasingly unpredictable. It was nice to be genuinely interested in how things would play out.
A couple of inconsistencies:
The Adder invites Striker to play a game through a sinister e-mail. This is never revisited.
Striker spends the first quarter of the novel complaining about Larisa Logan's hard-nosed, obtrusive manner in his therapy sessions with her and that he doesn't like her all that much. After she goes missing, he's referring to her as a great friend who got him through the toughest period in his life.
It took me a few days to finish Snakes & Ladders - it was a little too long, the main character was very off-putting, and the "procedure" aspect of the police procedural was a bit too heavy, so I put the book down more often than I picked it up, but it was a more consistant effort than The Survivor, and I am not opposed to checking out another Striker novel. And considering how much I detest the guy, that's quite a feat!