Against the background of a tricky political election in New York and the corrupt machinations of the Tammany Hall machine, police detective Simon Ziele is called to the scene of a brutal murder in his new position in Dobson, New York. A young female student at Columbia University, Sarah Wingate, has been murdered in her room at her aunt’s upscale home.
The crime is all the more shocking for the place it is perpetrated, in a better-class Dobson neighborhood around three o’clock in the afternoon. Fleeing a personal tragedy in New York City, Ziele has recently moved farther upstate, hoping to escape the high rate of violent crimes in a quieter area.
At the crime scene, Ziele and his boss use the most current investigative tools, including fingerprinting, to ascertain the identity of the criminal; they track Sarah’s connections through her family, friends and associates. When Ziele is contacted by Alistair Sinclair, a specialist in criminal behavior at Columbia University in New York City, he is trapped in an unusual situation. Sinclair claims to know the identity of Sarah’s killer, a man he has been studying for a time: Michael Fromley.
Contemplating sharing information with Sinclair and the necessity of returning to the city to meet with him, Ziele is seduced by the almost perfect fit of Fromley to the crime. Almost perfect. But Sinclair’s methods and lack of transparency lead Ziele to doubt the wisdom of putting his trust in a man who may harbor another agenda. Has Ziele become a pawn of Sinclair’s ambitions? It is certainly Zeile’s duty to protect citizens from harm, regardless of the temptation to trust the behavioral scientist’s methods: “Evil is less threatening if one understands it.”
This turn-of-the-century thriller examines the dilemma of police investigative techniques with the ethical challenges of sociological advances. It is the battle between real evidence and the more subjective information provided by behavioral specialists who study criminal behavior in order to prevent that behavior becoming entrenched. Appreciating Sinclair’s beliefs, it is still Ziele’s task to solve the murder and prevent further violence, even at the risk of thwarting Sinclair’s progress.
In spite of the details surrounding this particular crime, at the heart of the novel is an important argument: can a criminal, a potential murderer be rehabilitated, before he embraces a life of crime? And once a heinous act has been committed, can the criminal’s compulsions be redirected? When murder is at issue, the stakes are too high for mistakes.