Wednesday, July 18, 2012
The Shadow Man, by Mark Murphy
Langdon Street Press, 2012
(copy sent to me by the publisher -- thanks!)
A few weeks ago I got an email from Ashley at Langdon Street Press asking if I would care to read and review Mark Murphy's first novel The Shadow Man. My ARC reading schedule and the stacks of books already waiting for me said no, but I was intrigued because the novel was set in Savannah, one of my favorite places in the US -- except in the summer when people from out of town absolutely melt from the heat. The book is a thriller/suspense novel with more than a hint of the supernatural edging around the action of story in the form of dreams and Native American raven lore. Although I'm not really a huge fan of the mix of supernatural and crime, the book has a really evil bad guy, a story that never lets up and a hapless victim caught up in a situation well beyond his control. With the disbelief factor ruled in, and despite a couple of picky-reader plot-element issues, I liked the creeping tension I felt while reading The Shadow Man; considering that this is Murphy's first novel, I think he did a fine job, and I wish him success.
On a dark night somewhere deep in the Florida swamps, a man in a boat is busy feeding the alligators with the cut-up body of a woman. The woman was his victim, and now he needs to dispose of the evidence of his crime. Deep in the swamp with its Spanish-moss covered trees and palmettos all around him, there is no one but the man -- or so he thinks. He becomes aware of a huge flock of ravens, numbering in the thousands, all staring at him. He's a bit unnerved -- although he takes no stock in it himself, he knows that the Seminoles here believe in "Spirit guides and communion with nature, being one with Mother Earth, all of that garbage." As the man, known only as Q, returns to his jeep , the ravens go crazy with their "caws and screes," and go flying off, their wings "blotting out the stars in the sky." And so begins The Shadow Man. There's a touch of otherworldliness at work here in this story of an innocent doctor falling victim to a serial killer whose MO involves setting up others to take the blame for his crimes. As another man pursues the justice that has eluded him for some time, he will also cross paths with the doctor, and they will join forces in an effort to put a stop to the mysterious killer who has caused havoc and tragedy in both of their lives. Hopefully they can do this before anyone else gets hurt.
The target of this serial killer is Dr. Malcolm King, a surgeon who lives an ordinary life with his wife and daughter in Savannah. As the novel opens, he's just returned from a conference in Miami, happy to be home again. But it's only a couple of days later that his nightmare begins. A policeman comes to his door to question him about the death and evisceration of a neighbor's dog, making a remark about Malcolm being a surgeon and knowing anatomy pretty well. Then someone breaks into his house. Later, people who Malcolm knows or with whom he has a connection start dying, and the evidence left behind at each crime scene seems to implicates him in the deaths. Although one of his best friends is in the police department, Mal senses that it's only a matter of time before the cops come to pick him up, and after a warning, he feels it's in his and his family's best interests if he takes off. As he's leaving he runs into another victim of the serial killer, Billy Littlebear, who has been trying to find the guy who's been tormenting Malcolm for his own reasons. Together they try to clear Mal's name, but the question is -- will they be able to do so before the killer strikes again? As you are reading and start to become uneasy over the elaborate preparations the murderer has taken to put Malcolm in the frame, a mystery unfurls, one that underlies a great deal of the action: why is Mal targeted specifically?
The book is a good ride, building reader tension as Malcolm is slowly being framed for one terrible incident after the other. It should be a be a big draw for readers who like the boom-boom-boom action of car chases, police evasions and explosions. As far as setting, the author aptly provides a little of Savannah's history to offer a very nice feel for this lovely place, and doesn't limit himself to just city limits -- he moves his action outward to nearby areas as well. My picky-audience issues with this book are with plot details in a couple of places that just didn't sit right (for example, the scene where Malcolm rushes home, fearing that the killer is there and NOT informing the cops who show up only much later), and dialogue that once in a while doesn't ring true and doesn't fit (would a serial killer really say "I'm the serial killer?"). IMHO, it's very careful attention to little details like this one that move an author's work to the next level of reading intensity. At the same time, first novels are often the most difficult -- and a lot of first-work writers make these types of errors in crime writing. A word about the ending -- since the author has chosen to interweave the serial killings with Native American lore and supernatural elements, it turns out to have been quite appropriate, although I'm a bit puzzled as to why Murphy felt he needed to go the supernatural route, because the story of the murders and setting Malcolm up to take the fall would have been good on their own without it.
I think that The Shadow Man will definitely appeal to readers of action-packed thrillers; it also may be a good choice for readers who like standalone serial-killer novels and don't mind a little brush with the supernatural here and there. While the mix isn't really something I do very often and is out of my crime-reading comfort zone, I do have to admit that poor Malcolm's plight had my stomach in knots for a while and that finding out the whys behind the frame-up was very satisfying.