Wednesday, June 28, 2017

crazytown .... The Fourth Monkey, by J.D. Barker

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
416 pp

arc - sent from the author/publisher, thank you!

I had this debate with myself about where I should make this post -- it is technically a crime novel so it should go on the crime page of my reading journal, but at the same time, what happens in this book, at least in the diary entries from the past, is dementedly dark, so I figured maybe it should go here.

I have to start off here with a disclaimer. I'm not at all a fan of serial-killer novels. I used to be, having read all of what I'd call "the classics,"  but that all changed after I made the mistake of reading Mo Hayder's The Treatment a couple of years back, which was just outrageous in terms of the number of graphic torture scenes one person can cram into a book. Then I started noticing that a lot of newer serial-killer novel blurbs boasted about torture, violence, etc., and I just couldn't do it any more.   Some people like that stuff, to which I say whatever floats your boat, but it's just not me. Luckily, that sort of thing is at a minimum here. Don't get me wrong --   there are some pretty sick things going on in this book ( my first impression was "demented serial killer served with a side of sadism"), but unlike a huge number of other serial-killer novels, the sick stuff is definitely not the book's main raison d'être and frankly, that's what counts for me.

The police have been after a particularly nasty man whom they've dubbed the Four Monkey Killer (4MK) for several years with no success.  The guy has never left a single clue that would help them determine his identity, and he has been clever enough to be able to move throughout Chicago without ever being seen, despite the fact that he's left a couple of victims in public spaces. However, it looks as though their luck has changed as the novel begins, when a man launches himself in front of a bus and does himself in. Detective Sam Porter is called out to the scene,  a situation he wouldn't normally be called out for, but when he gets there, he gets the surprise of his life -- it seems that before the dead guy offed himself, he'd been carrying a "small white box tied up with black string," the only thing ever left behind after 4MK had done his dirty work in the past.  This box is just one more added to the twenty-one boxes Porter and his task force have collected over the years -- seven victims with three boxes per person, containing their ears, eyes and tongues, relating to the old adage of  hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.  4MK isn't 4MK for nothing -- despite the fact that he's a killer, the "4" reflects  "do no evil," as in the representation of the four monkeys shown below.   The "do no evil" message is  always left behind with the dead bodies in some form or another, but that's it. No clues, no evidence, no nothing that would help Porter find this guy. The cops are elated until they realize that the discovery of the box with its contents means that while their killer might be dead, somewhere there's another victim out there.  Oh -- and this time the killer has left behind a huge clue in the form of a diary that just may help the police find a missing teenage girl before it's too late. The killer evidently intended the cops to find the diary, so that Porter could, in the killer's words, "understand what I have done."

the four monkeys, from Wikipedia

So far, so good, and I'm turning and burning pages as fast as I can.  And then, we get to the diary, where quite frankly, all things start pretty normally enough and then BAM -- things get full on insane  in the space of a few entries.  Now, I know that the diary thing is a gimmick that a lot of writers use in your standard serial-killer fare, but I'm here to tell you that you've probably NEVER seen anything quite like this one.  Holy crap! When at the end of the book the author says that this story was "born of 'what if' and an imagination that lost its governor some time ago" he wasn't just filling in space in the acknowledgments section.  What's in that diary is a) definitely reflective of why our killer does what he does in the present, but b) so insane and (as I said earlier) darkly demented that I wasn't sure what the hell I was reading for a while. Talk about a new spin -- sheesh! It's like a Wally-less Leave it to Beaver gone wrong that plays out in a bizarre parallel universe, and god help me, although it is over the top and I was enjoying the investigation itself, I couldn't wait to get back to the diary entries every time they popped back into the story.  I've decided that I'm in need of mental help because of that, but to my credit, I will say that the phrase "there are some sick f***s out there"  kept running through my head so perhaps I'm not so inwardly twisted as I might think.

Now that I've said all of this and have revealed myself to be mentally deranged for being so engrossed in the ongoing saga of MK4's childhood, I will say that I figured out the first major twist before I was a quarter through the book, so loss of points there. Writers of crime novels (standard fare or not) really ought to be aware that long-time mystery/crime readers like myself have become quite  good at predicting twists here and there after years of reading this sort of thing, so for me the lack of originality there was a bit disappointing. Also, the whole serial-killer-playing-a-game-with-the-cops thing is a bit overused, so that was also a bit bothersome.   However, it was the second big twist (which I didn't see coming and which was definitely original - yay),  along with what happens in the diary entries that sort of evens things out, not to mention the fact that although the Four Monkey Killer has done some pretty messed-up things, it becomes very clear that he was in his own way, looking for some measure of justice for those who've been wronged in a very big way.

Read it, and just keep telling yourself that thankfully, it's only fiction.

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