Saturday, October 10, 2015

"The Death Sculptor" by Chris Carter

This rambling about "The Death Sculptor" will contain SPOILERS within.


Det. Robert Hunter and his partner Det. Carlos Garcia are called to the scene of a disturbing crime, in which a popular prosecutor has been murdered. Not only that, he has been completely dismembered, and his body-parts rearranged to display a gruesome tableau. Because the victim worked for the state, the District Attorney gets involved and assigns their investigator Alice Beaumont to the case to help them out.

They eventually discover that the sculpture was arranged so that it could make a shadow puppet - the shadow of the sculpture creates an image against the wall.

The next murder is of a seasoned police officer, so the team quickly set about trying to find a link between the two bodies. They eventually arrive at the conclusion this is the work of Ken Sands, a criminal recently released from prison, having served his full sentence, and the most likely to have a beef with both victims. He is also super-smart, having studied medicine in jail in order for him to have the skills to amputate limbs.

But if Hunter is to catch Sands, he must figure out what he is trying to say with the shadow puppets he creates out of each murder scene.

First of all, it has to pointed out that the killer isn't Ken Sands at all. This is despite the fact we have chapter after chapter of Hunter, Garcia and Beaumont carrying out an investigation and discovering all the different ways he matches their profile. Cunning, nasty and possessing medical-school abilities that allows him to prolong life while cutting off a person's limbs just to torture them longer. They find a reasonable motive that could push him to carry out the murders.

But who cares about all that set-up? The killer is actually Olivia Nicholson, the daughter of the first victim. It turns out she was adopted and previously dropped out of medical school. Her father, and all the other victims, once made up a group that liked to rape and beat prostitutes. Olivia was the daughter of one who died, and they used their knowledge of the law to dispose of the body (they dismembered it and dumped it in the ocean), and her father adopted her. Upon learning he was dying of cancer, he confessed all to his daughter, prompting the massacre.

Which makes chapter after chapter - pretty much the whole book - setting up Ken Sands as the culprit to be caught, completely fucking pointless. Yes, thrillers should have a few red herrings, but this is certainly the longest, drawn-out one I've ever seen. I couldn't help thinking that if they'd dug into the life of the victim and the lives of his family - like most criminal investigations do - this would have all been solved a lot sooner. (And we wouldn't have a book).

I like being taken by surprise. But here I just felt duped, because it wasn't clever enough. Surprise! It's actually this other person who conveniently had a medical background that was never previously mentioned, with a motive that was completely unknown until other facts came to light very late in the novel. I just don't think it's a very fair way to pull a fast one on the reader. If there had been carefully dropped clues throughout the book, I might have felt differently.

For example, the second victim meets up with a mechanic who is actually the killer. I went back and checked, and this person is only referred to as "the mechanic", rather than "he" or "she". So the author has covered his bases there. But it's never explained during the climax how Olivia came to be such a good mechanic she could help fix another guy's boat.

The third victim, a psychologist meets up with the killer, who is only referred to as "the artist". So the author has covered his bases there. However, Hunter later discovers that the killer had a one-off session with the doctor under the alias "David Jones". Which would make one think the killer was male. This is never addressed by the close of the book. Maybe the author thought we would forget this little tidbit?

Then we have the endless, endless pointless dragging out of information. I'll give some examples how many of the chapters end:

Doctor Hove's entire body tingled as if it had been electrified, turning her skin into gooseflesh.
"I'll be damned".

Only to then not explain for a couple of chapters what prompted that response. A later example:

"Wait." Garcia lifted his hand before exchanging a quick, unsettling glance with Hunter. "Why do you say that, Doc?"
The doctor turned around. "Let me show you why."

We're not shown why until a couple of chapters later. Following chapter:

Alice sucked in a startled breath, and it rushed into her lungs like a cold wind. 
"OK, now this is very interesting."

It is only several chapters later we find out what is so interesting. Actually, not even then:

"Sorry to interrupt." Her eyes circled the room, making sure she had everyone's attention. "But I think I finally got something."

Does she actually? No. She rambles for three pages about what isn't relevant, before revealing:

"And I might have gotten lucky, because a very strong candidate came up."

Does anybody here actually get to the fucking point? Nobody talks like this! Alice is probably by far the worst offender. Later on:

"Wait until you read both files." She sat at the edge of her desk with a satisfied look on her face. "You'll have to read it to believe it."

If I were part of this investigation, I'd want to wipe that satisfied look off her face. I guess at least she was investigating the wrong guy the whole time. Good one, Alice.

Garcia reached for the second file and flipped it open.
"This is Ken Sands' prison file," he explained. "And here is where it gets a lot more interesting."

Yes, it is several chapters later and they still haven't disclosed the contents of both files, despite knowing what is in them.

Alice threw Garcia a surprised stare. "When you read through the list earlier you never told me that you recognized a name."
Garcia smiled. "You never asked."


There are several more examples, but I think I've made my point.

Sure, character development is thin, the narrative is basically one long red herring, and the revelation of facts is ridiculously prolonged, but this is still manages to be swiftly paced and sufficiently gruesome. It isn't like your usual police procedural, in which detectives sit around on their asses and wait for forensic results. This one actually moves. It isn't dull, which I think is probably the worst criticism you could throw at a thriller. So, while I thought there was a lot of stupid to be found here, I wasn't bored.

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