Saul Black’s thriller, The Killing Lessons, taps into the frustration of unsolved serial killings and the actions of detectives to end a particularly heinous murder spree. The suspenseful plot alternates the unfolding dramas: the investigation of San Francisco Homicide Detective Valerie Hart and the perpetrator--in this case two killers--the murders spread across the Western United States and the unbalanced relationship of the murderous pair, one dominant, the other subservient. The author adds another perspective: the victims’ experiences, beginning with a murder in a farmhouse in Colorado, a widowed mother caught unaware by two intruders. Xander King and Paulie Stokes brutalize the unsuspecting household of three, slaughtering the mother and teenaged son,
though the ten-year-old daughter, Nell, escapes into the woods. Nell is pursued by Paulie, who can’t admit his failure to the volatile, unpredictable Xander. Injured, Nell’s fate in the wilderness becomes a life-and-death struggle, her only hope for survival an elderly man debilitated by pain. (The scenes between Nell and Angelo are infused with desperation, fear and the bonding of two strangers learning to trust one another.)
Badly hurt but desperate to help her mother, Nell’s dilemma illustrates the complicated mix of personalities in the novel, particularly the driven detective and the latest victim, a young woman Hart hopes to save before time runs out. Sliding toward trouble as the pressure to solve the killings builds, Valerie is drinking too much, sleeping too little, desperate for a clue, sabotaging a love affair along the way and suffering the consequences of a bad decision: “You want to work in Homicide? Get rid of your heart.” As she finally begins to unravel a thread that will lead to the killers, her ex-lover, Nick Blaskovitch, walks back into her life. Then Hart is forced to accept FBI Agent Carla York on her team, an acerbic woman with a clear antipathy for the lead detective. Without the will to argue the addition of a federal partner, Valerie finds the road ahead treacherous, faced with problems that can derail her career. She doesn’t care, her only goal to find these killers before they claim another victim: “All justice proved was that justice wasn’t enough.”
King and Stokes, of course, have been busy since the Colorado slayings, on the streets of a Northern California city with plans to torture and kill another victim: “The world was so full of women not noticing the men who were noticing them.” The killers act out their folie a deux as they transport their captive, Claudia, to a special destination. It is at this place that Xander’s past comes into conflict with Paulie’s nascent rebellion, their hostage frantic to survive the promised agony of her demise: “The will to live was a thing of benign slyness.” The denouement is imminent: the twisted pathology of the killers, a captive frantic to escape, and a detective willing to risk everything to save the her, too close to care about the consequences. The circle is completed as primary characters meet in an explosive confrontation.
Though a series of brutal crimes are at the heart of this thriller, Black resists descending into the messy abattoir favored by writers like Chelsea Cain, though Cain was referenced in the promotional quotes for the book.
He describes perpetrators and their methods in detail, but not to the point of revulsion. Protagonist Valerie Hart remains accessible, in emotional distress and obsessed with stopping these killers but within the boundaries of reality, cognizant of her flaws and mistakes. The Killing Lessons is a thoughtful, provocative crime story, delivering what the genre promises. I look forward to this author’s next offering.