Go to Homepage   Amy Gutman: The Anniversary


Crescent Blues Book ViewsLittle, Brown (Hardcover), ISBN 0-316-38120-9

Exactly five years ago notorious serial killer Steven Gage was executed. Now three women closely involved in his final days -- his ex-girlfriend, the lawyer who tried to get his death sentence commuted, the bestselling writer who built a career on her book about him -- receive anonymous notes wishing them a "Happy Anniversary." Soon after, the writer, Diane, is murdered in a fashion somewhat resembling the dead killer's modus operandi.

Book: Amy Gutman, the Anniversary
The crime brings together the other two women, lawyer Melanie and Gage's ex-girlfriend Laura, now living as Callie and hoping the world has forgotten her past. They recall how Gage, while on Death Row, tutored other prisoners in law, so that some gained retrials -- among them notorious serial rapist-murderer Lester Crain, who, shortly before escaping detention, vowed he'd show Gage his gratitude.

Yet Diane's killing has none of the hallmarks of Crain's handiwork. Even so, there are signs that he is, as it were, in the vicinity of all the goings on, and Callie's suspicions center on him -- even after Melanie has been viciously attacked but, significantly, not killed, and even after Melanie's old friend Mike Jamison, an ex-FBI profiler, points out that the attack on Melanie, with its attempt at a quick kill, could not have been more unlike anything done by Crain.

The notion of the crimes of one serial killer being perpetuated by another after his incarceration or death is not a new one, but then most serial-killer-chiller-thriller plots aren't especially original, and that doesn't necessarily stop the resultant novels from doing their essential job of thrilling and chilling. It's what the writer does by way of original development of the well worn premise that can engross us; and, even if that development is itself not particularly original, the writer can carry the whole thing off by creating an appropriately chilling atmosphere or through the manipulation of secondary-level plotting surprises.

Book: Amy Gutman, equivocal death
Gutman succeeds with the third strategy: several times I was startled by minor twists. Unfortunately, she fails with the first two. For the most part the tale is predictable -- e.g., the eventually revealed murderer was my number one suspect from very early on. But the greater problem is the lack of atmosphere, allied to a failure of her central characters to jump off the page. They should be interesting, because she's praiseworthily striven to give them all sorts of characteristics and foibles that ought to make them real people rather than fictional protagonists, but they stubbornly remain two-dimensional. And so I didn't care what happened to any of them; several times I had to remind myself that, since I was reading this book for review, I couldn't simply put it aside.

This is a pity, because elements of Gutman's subtext are interesting. She raises important questions -- without polemic -- concerning capital punishment, and she has some significant things to say on the subject of guilt and self-accusation.

In sum, this isn't a bad book. It's just dull where it shouldn't be.

John Grant

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