Every once in a while, I like to try something a little different when I read. Sometimes it's a radical change (though nothing so far as, for example, David Icke); sometimes it's just a new author in a genre I enjoy. When that urge hit me recently, I decided to try The Murder Notebook by Jonathan Santlofer. It's a suspense novel with all the usual tropes: mysterious murders, cops who can't quite figure out what is going on, police commanders who get in the faces of their subordinates, and an interesting motive once the murders are solved. What Santlofer gives you, in addition to all that, is a main hero who is a police sketch artist. While this makes for an interesting read - and I enjoyed Santlofer's characters - I did find the mysticism a bit hard to stomach in a genre like this.
A varied series of murders has New York paralyzed, the public fearful and the government demanding that something be done about it. Police sketch artist Nate Rodriguez usually has a sixth sense about these sorts of things, but this time around he's blinded. He has something in his mind that he must construct, attached to a skull that showed up in a burnt-out apartment building, but he's quickly pulled off that case to consult on these other murders. He feels that the murders must be related and slowly begins to unravel the rat's nest at the base of it all. Haunted by the murder of his own father years ago as well as under stress because the task force leader is also his lover, Rodriguez must get his bearings straight before an organization higher than the New York state government gets involved and makes sure that he can't.
One of the most intriguing things about The Murder Notebook, and presumably other books by Santlofer, is that he is also an artist. Thus, Rodriguez's drawings show up in the book, making the impact much more immediate than if it were just described by the author. It gives the book a "hands-on" feel that I really liked. It's fitting that Santlofer makes Rodriguez a sketch artist for that reason, and it's especially effective as the sculpture Rodriguez is trying to make based on the skull comes to life in front of our eyes. It's also pretty cool that the author's picture on the dust jacket is a self-portrait drawing.
Santlofer does an excellent job with the characters, though Rodriguez's neuroses began to get annoying after a while. The dialogue, while not wonderful, fits the genre perfectly. Major characters are given some depth, and even the minor characters and their little quirks generally have some purpose. The medical examiner's insistence on proper paperwork gets irritating until Santlofer uses it in a brilliant payoff scene.
There are the obligatory shots at the president, the “War on Terror,” and the rest of the federal government. Santlofer did it just often enough that it was starting to throw me out of the book, but not enough to kill my enjoyment of it. If you're of that political persuasion, then you'll be nodding your head with it anyway. Most of the statements are one-offs or asides, though occasionally one of the characters goes off on a short diatribe about something. The plot sounds a bit outlandish, but Santlofer provides plenty of documentation to show that the basis from which he extrapolated is actually real. Do yourself a favor and don't read the epilogue (and I know that some of you do!) until after you've finished the book.
The main problem with The Murder Notebook, and this may not be a problem for all readers, is the use of mysticism as a plot point. I'm a very structured reader who likes my genres separated for the most part. If mysticism plays a part in a book, I want it to be a big part, like some paranormal or religious story, or an urban fantasy novel. If I sit down to read a crime novel, a suspenseful serial killer novel, I don't really want any paranormal situations. Yet Santlofer not only uses it but makes it integral to the ending of the novel, and that left me a little cold. Maybe it was a case of different expectations.
Otherwise, (and I know that some of you do!) is an excellent crime novel with an unusual kind of protagonist. Well-written with an intriguing plot, if you're a fan of the genre, it's definitely worth a look.