I've read Greg Iles's books in a convoluted order, but this has heightened my sense that he appears to be losing something. Either that, or his previous books were so phenomenal that they can't be bettered by what he's doing now. I have enjoyed but been lukewarm toward his latest books, then I read 2002's Sleep No More and loved it. After reading Dead Sleep, I feel even more strongly that this is the case. This book is riveting from beginning to end, with only the occasional slow spot where character background descriptions get a bit too lengthy.
Photojournalist Jordan Glass is following in her famous father's footsteps in the photography field, earning many of the awards that he did. Working on a new book to take a break from the immediacy of journalism, she stumbles upon an art gallery in Hong Kong with a horrifying sight: a series of paintings of nude women, called the "Sleeping Women," women who appear to Jordan to be dead rather than sleeping. Even more shocking is that one of the women has her face.
Actually, it's the face of her twin sister, Jane, who disappeared 13 months ago. With this new clue, Jordan and the FBI are hot on the trail of a serial killer in New Orleans, a trail that leads to rape, murder, and a history of sexual abuse that would drive anyone over the waterfall to insanity.
Once again, it takes reading an older Iles book to avoid getting stupid characters, or at least characters who don't generally do stupid things. Jordan is fascinating, with a past that Iles slowly unveils as the story continues. She's got her own demons in her past to defeat even as she tries desperately to discover whether Jane might still be alive. When she meets up with FBI agent John Kaiser as part of the investigation, sparks fly almost immediately. As Iles slowly reveals his past, we see two extremely damaged people coming together with both an external purpose (finding the killer or killers) and an internal one as well.
More importantly, the characters are generally likeable (at least the ones who you’re supposed to like). I loved agent Wendy Travis, a woman who obviously has the hots for Kaiser but is professional enough to do her job despite Jordan horning in on things. An intriguing relationship develops between Jordan and her, too. Yes, these characters are still full of flaws, which appears to be an Iles trademark, but he keeps the reader rooting for them rather than wishing they'd all be hit by a bus.
The author also keeps the coincidences to a minimum. The story does begin with the massive coincidence of Jordan finding these paintings, but I don't necessarily mind coincidences that spark a story; that's almost the definition of the "what-if" process of coming up with a story to begin with. It's the coincidences that resolve the action, or even worse move the action along because the author can't come up with a better way that take a reader out of a narrative. Iles avoids this problem more successfully here than in more recent books.
The plotting in Dead Sleep is as meticulous as fans expect from Iles. Plenty of red herrings float around; characters dismissed by the reader as somebody unimportant turn out to be the opposite. Some of the twists can be seen from a mile away, but then one hits you and floors you just for a moment. A point that initially doesn’t draw a lot of attention suddenly becomes pivotal, leaving the reader wondering "How did I miss that?" Iles once again cements his reputation in the thriller field with this book.
That's not to say Dead Sleep is perfect. Long passages have characters being given (or giving) background on themselves or on other characters. Most are interesting enough that the reader still stays intrigued even as pages and pages filled with exposition go by. Other times it just starts to drag, and I kept on wanting Iles to get on with it. Jordan, as the narrator of the book, only imparts information on her own past in dribbles as it becomes relevant. The other characters aren't so lucky. The FBI briefing scene of four possible suspects at Tulane University is one such scene that should have been shorter.
Such scenes are few, though, and once Iles gets the momentum moving again it's hard to put down. The fact that he uses present tense to tell the story adds to the immediacy and gives the story great impact. The last 100 pages almost have to be read in one sitting, though, with event after event happening while the reader watches the plot boil over.
Dead Sleep another page-turner by this author, with compelling characters, prose that keeps you reading, and a plot that will keep you guessing. It's a bloody-knife book for the ages, and the best Iles I've read so far.