Although I rarely read American crime fiction, I thought Adler’s Last to Know really captured the darker side of human behavior. Forty-year-old homicide detective Harry Jordan may not be unique, but his quirks, background, and desire to root out the bad behavior of those who would hide their crimes set him apart from the rest. Harry has a remarkable insight into the twisted criminal mind, gleaned from the less than harmonious events of his childhood. He also has an innate ability to enter the killer's psyche and tap into his motivations.
As the novel opens, Harry is pining for his one true love, Mal Malone. Mal has fled to Paris and is holed up in a small, inexpensive Left Bank hotel “with no job and no fiancé.” Mal clearly loves Harry with his macho cop persona and regular-guy attitude, but she wonders why he’s not giving her the commitment she desires. Harry is a man with a mission, having worked his way up to senior detective. His colleague Carlo Rossetti (“a good old-fashioned Italian son”) lends an interesting dimension to Harry’s unique ability and to the resistance he puts up against others who seek to challenge him.
Focusing on a calculating psychopath who may have changed his or her identity, Adler inserts into her narrative all the nuances of a delusional mind, capturing perfectly the claustrophobia and tension of a serial killer who may be connected to an interstate methamphetamine cartel. Drug violence is nothing new, but it’s not the sort of activity you find at Evening Lake, a bucolic setting in western Massachusetts. Glimmering black in the moonlit night, the Lake is home to Harry as well as to Rose and Wally Osborne and their children. A successful writer of horror stories “that can make your hair stand on end,” lately Wally hasn’t been as attentive to his family as Rose would like. Rose, meanwhile, must deal with their daughters, “a couple of fluffy teenage girls”; elder son Roman; and ginger-haired younger son Diz, a loner who sits high atop the fig tree outside their model home, spying on the neighbors.
Tragedy is unleashed in the early morning hours when the house across the lake goes up in flames. As a screaming Bea Havnel, her blonde hair surrounded by a ring of fire, plunges into the Lake, Diz hides in the trees, watching his father row to the girl’s rescue while the explosion itself radiates out in a giant ball of fire. From the voice of a killer to the bourgeoning attraction between a mother and her hunky detective to a boy in the tree “spying on the spy,” the aftermath of the disaster unleashes a perfectly calibrated killer intent to take revenge on a seemingly flawless family.
When Harry and Carlo interview Bea Havnel at the hospital, Harry is surprised there’s little evidence of what the girl had actually gone though. Bea may have an endearingly wide blue-eyed smile, but she knows exactly who she is as a woman and how to use the power of her gentle beauty. Her mother, meanwhile, hard-bitten Lacey Havnel, is zipped into a dark-blue plastic body bag and consigned to the morgue, her body found next to the burned-out house with a knife plunged though her eye. Both Harry and Carlo are perplexed at how this glitzy, drug-addicted woman who had more money than she ought to has ended up dead.
In a plot as elegant and precise as the shady killer who terrorizes the inhabitants of Evening Lake, Harry frantically searches for answers in what rapidly becomes a murder case. The investigation soon turns to local reclusive eccentric Len Doutzer. The Lake’s eyes and ears, Len is known locally as “the janitor.” Len knew Lacey Havnel twenty years ago and is able to verify that Lacey was a reckless Miami bar girl who lived a squalid life in a ramshackle studio apartment. But is Len a meaningless drifter or a con artist of the highest order? Is Bea Havnel a drama queen intent on milking her beauty for gain? And what of Harry’s journalist friend, flame-haired Jemima, who is reckless enough to get herself into a game that’s bigger than she knows how to play.
Although her tale doesn’t reinvent the métier of crime fiction, Alder’s gift is that she can build suspense while writing fully-fleshed out characters. There’s a lot of blood and carnage as Harry confronts his nemesis as he simultaneously learns that love transcends geography. In her solid adventure, Alder has the knack for delivering not only the personal trials of Harry and the fiercely independent minds of Mal and Rose, but also building the tension around an innocent captive who finds himself held at the silent mercy of a killer.