Crime in Philadelphia gets an extra jolt in Montanari’s thrillers, the most recent following tradition without flinching. I must admit the graphic violence of the prologue nearly put me off, but the following chapters, while horrifying, are not quite as viscerally difficult to absorb. That doesn’t make the subject of this thriller any less gruesome: the murders of teen and adolescent children left in deadly tableau with hand-lettered invitations to tea at a future date. Each carefully arranged scene leads to yet another in a chain of macabre murders that
draw detectives Jennifer Balzano and Kevin Byrne on a nightmarish quest for a clever killer.
These two detectives have closed a number of tough cases together
and are still a solid team, although Balzano has been hoping to use her law school education, forced by economic issues to remain with the police. Though Byrne is divorced, Balzano is married to a narcotics detective and has two young children. Even while the new murders are breaking hard and fast, Byrne cannot escape his certainty that a murderer on death row soon to be executed, Valerie Beckert, is also responsible for a series of others--cases that will remain unsolved once Beckert is put to death. As the detectives are drawn into this bizarre new case, Byrne also pursues new information he hopes will force Beckert to accept responsibility for the other missing children.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the new cases is the addition to each tableau of porcelain dolls. The doll
or dolls are placed at the scene as though observing the newly dead, each eerily crafted to look like the dead victims. Suddenly these dolls become sinister omens, doppelgangers of living children chosen as props in an unfolding ritual. Unlike other investigations into crimes with more predictable motives, this case requires resourcefulness and research into the ancient art of dollmaking, the history of craftsmen and
the sources of materials, as well as intensive study of the foster care system in Philadelphia for the identities of clients too often labeled simply John or Jane Doe. Regardless of the deviance that marks this particular investigation, the novel is still a police procedural, the killer eventually unearthed through painstaking attention to detail, the fine threads that finally merge into a recognizable pattern.
The concept of dolls in thrillers has achieved special status in inducing horror and dread, innocent childhood toys that make a mockery of humans, “living dolls” rendered grotesque in death at the hands of a psychopathic killer. The motives may be unusual, the manner a perverted take on reality, but the children are just as dead. The challenge for Byrne and Balzano is to push beyond the shock of the children’s bodies to the madness behind the murders
which made more relevant for each detective by unexpected personal involvement and the danger to loved ones, danger that ratchets up the consequences of failure. The denouement arrives fast and furious with no opportunity for second thoughts. Cold and brutal, the murders hide behind the unblemished facades of inanimate dolls, wide-eyed, unblinking reminders of evil intention and the wanton destruction of innocents. So much for those dainty dolls arranged on a shelf at Grandma’s house.