It's been a banner year in CSI novel fiction, with the wonderful Brass in Pocket coming out late last summer, followed by the fall release of Donn Cortez's The Killing Jar. While my first experience with CSI novels wasn't the most pleasant, these last two have been enjoyable novels. Cortez continues the streak with a truly interesting premise that examines a character as much as is possible in a tie-in novel, as well as delivering the reader an intriguing plot.
A teenager is found dead in a hotel room, killed by millipede poison. Gil Grissom, Nick Stokes and Riley Adams are forced to face off with a deranged killer whose knowledge of entomology rivals Grissom's own, and who uses that knowledge to not only kill but also to explore the effects of his murders. He may be Grissom's toughest opponent yet. Meanwhile, Catherine Willows and Greg Sanders are investigating the death of a Hawaiian man engulfed in hardened wax after having his fingers cut off. He's the overlap between the world of crystal meth and the art world, and these two crossing is never a good thing.
The format of The Killing Jar is quite basic, with the two cases operating totally independently of each other. The only crossover at all is the occasional update that Catherine has to give Grissom because he's the supervisor. While Catherine and Riley were heavily explored in Brass in Pocket, it's Grissom's turn to shine in this one. The wax-covered corpse case, while presenting some interesting CSI work, doesn't carry near the weight of Grissom's case. Cortez gives Greg and Catherine some good character moments but doesn't really explore them too much (other than Greg's fascination with the annual Burning Man event in the Nevada desert).
Grissom is the focus of this novel, and Cortez does a great job with him. The Killing Jar takes place between the first ten episodes of Season 9 of the television series. Warrick is dead, Sara Sidle (Grissom's lover and fellow CSI) has gone away in search of herself, and Grissom is beginning to reflect on his time in Las Vegas, wondering whether it's time to hang things up and follow Sara. This was all fully explored in those ten episodes, but Cortez does a good job building upon that here. Memories of Warrick abound, and Grissom also reflects back to a couple of conversations he had with Sara about certain things. Meanwhile, he's faced with a killer who seems to be trying to test him.
I loved all the little "bug facts" that Cortez presents to the reader in Grissom's analysis of the case. It’s fascinating to watch Grissom try to understand the killer, thinking about insect societies and how they work, and how that can be translated into thinking about human societies. Whenever the cases themselves might have dragged a little bit, I was drawn in by all of the research Cortez obviously did on this subject. The best thing is, none of it is presented in massive infodumps because nobody but Grissom understands this stuff anyway. Thus, they have to have it explained to them. Cortez doesn't make these passages very long, though, presenting facts here and there rather than all at once.
Riley gets a couple of character moments, too, as she is still trying to fit in as the "new girl." She doesn't want to suck up to Grissom, but she does want to gain his (and the rest of the team's) respect - she doesn't want to be given the dirty and boring jobs just because she’s new. In this, we also get a little more insight into the relationships Grissom has with his "family" of CSIs, such as when Nick tells Riley that since Grissom is such a private person, a "good job" from him is basically equivalent to somebody else throwing a huge party in your honor.
The prose in The Killing Jar is serviceable, with short, choppy sections making the book a breeze to blow through in a single Saturday afternoon. Sometimes it's a bit too choppy, and Cortez has an annoying habit of ending each section on a "cliffhanger" (like Doc Robbins telling Nick to poke the bag covering the high school student's face, then the section ends and he comes back to it later, with Nick getting to feel the bag move under his fingers as the millipedes get disturbed). Otherwise, it's an enjoyable read where you won't notice how the book is written and can concentrate on the plot.
The best compliment I can give The Killing Jar is that it really feels like a CSI episode. Cortez keeps everyone in character - they all sound like themselves – and the narrative features a little bit of humor as well as the intriguing situations. You can see in your mind the actors spouting the lines he gives them. While we don't necessarily learn anything new about the characters, he does put them in situations that highlight the characters we already know, as well as giving them small bites of character that won't interfere with what the show itself tells us.
It's almost the perfect tie-in novel, and a must read for any CSI fan.