The Serpent Club is miles away from being on the sports desk at The New York Times, which is where Tom Coffey's day job as editor is. It's certain that he's had ample opportunity to see the way in which the public, reporters and publishers can create a self-sustaining media machine out of a single story that's got all the right elements: money and murder, sex and celebrity. This slick, noirish thriller sounds echoes of a few of the most spectacular murder cases of this century: a little bit O.J., a touch of JonBenet. The Serpent Club takes the reader an uncomfortable step farther than rubbernecking witness: it follows one man's near-irreversible descent into the darkest places of the human mind where the impulses to rape, assault and murder aren't always squelched by our "civilized" minds.
Ted Lowe's been a reporter for a top Los Angeles newspaper for a long time now. His life (and his love life) are pretty humdrum. When he hears on his police scanner of a body found at the top of Sepulveda Pass, all he's looking for is a story. What he gets is much more than he bargained for. The dead girl's name was Megan Wright. She was a pretty thirteen-year old who was raped and murdered, her naked body dumped for the world to find. It's the first body Ted has actually seen, and maybe it is for that reason that he finds himself becoming obsessed with finding the truth behind the life and death of one privileged girl.
Who is suspected of killing Megan Wright? There's her frigid, ambitious mother; her deadbeat surfbum of a father; then there's her boyfriend, an arrogant boy on the verge of manhood whose father is one of the richest (and most private) men in California. Ted begins to uncover facts about Megan that even the police haven't been able to find, and as his quest drags him deeper and deeper into an ugly underground L.A. subculture, he finds himself exploring corners of his own psyche that both thrill and repel him. The years of digging into the sordid decadence and violence of the city are taking their toll, and he's horrifyingly close to stepping over the line dividing him from the evil and apathy he's been writing about for so long.
Reading The Serpent Club is a lot like watching a horror movie; you can see that a bad thing is coming with appalling swiftness and inevitability, and part of you wants to screw your eyes shut. There's another part of you that wants to see, though, and that's the part that Tom Coffey both examines and panders to. It's that part of you that keeps turning the pages as the atrocities, the body count and the stakes all grow higher. The Serpent Club is not for the squeamish, but it is a riveting look at a part of the human mind most of us try like hell to deny is still there, the kind of thing we see plastered all over today's headlines, ugly and ultimately fascinating.