This first effort in a new crime series has a strong start, the author building both protagonist and setting on familiar terrain--tracking killers--but with a new twist. Magnus “Steps” Craig, known locally as “the Human Bloodhound”), has an unusual ability, a skill shared only with a chosen few that allows him to “track” a killer by physically reading the scene of the crime. As lead in the FBI’s three-person Special Tracking Unit, “Steps” (his unique nickname thankfully explained early on) works closely with his partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan, and intelligence analyst Diane Parker.
The two men travel to various crime scenes all over the country when their particular skills are needed, while Diane does her research from home base. Based in Washington state, the STU handles difficult cases. Steps
is particularly tortured by serial killers, whose tracks stand out as their idiosyncratic patterns emerge.
recurrent serial murderer “Leonardo” has long taunted Craig, a new monster is exposed early in this thriller, a singularly heinous monster (“Sad Face”) who takes the time to torture his victims before killing them. Because Donovan is privy to the particulars of Craig’s unusual talent, he is able to mask their activities with a logical explanation to the others, allowing his partner to dissect crime scenes without revealing his technique. This ability to identify the signature of serial killers is both a gift and a curse, a burden the protagonist has learned to live with, though he is chronically haunted by nightmares and the faces of those he has failed to save. His attempts at normalcy include living with his younger brother and an eccentric friend in a rural compound, but he remains fearful of indulging in a romantic attraction to a journalist, anxious about sharing his secret with her in a moment of weakness.
Though much of the heavy lifting occurs in this first effort, establishing characters and relationships, the Special Tracking Unit’s function in the law enforcement hierarchy and the kinds of cases the unit accepts, the author meticulously builds the plot around serial murderer “Sad Face”, who eventually begins to taunt Steps and the team while continuing his rampage.
While the banter of officers faced with grotesque crimes alleviates the horror of each new abduction, there is a growing sense of danger as Craig and Jimmy slowly close the circle around their prey. The final confrontation is brutal, Kope pulling no punches in a wild finale that leaves a victim’s life hanging in the balance, a bloodied killer cackling with triumph. This is a winning formula for a new face in crime fiction, though that nickname “Steps” feels really awkward and lacking in nuance for this savvy new protagonist.