My dad and I share an interest in paperback thrillers—I don’t read nearly as many as he does, but I do have an ever-growing stack of recommendations. Mostly it means that now and then we’ll go out to see movies based on popular novels—such was the case with The Bone Collector, a 1999 film with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. I don’t remember much about the movie except that we both liked it, and it caused dad to pick up the source novel, Jeffery Deaver’s first with the series character Lincoln Rhyme—a quadriplegic criminologist, on the hunt for a sadistic serial killer toying with the police.
Lincoln Rhyme is a brilliant criminologist—or technically was, before an on-the-job accident left him a bed-bound quadriplegic on the verge of suicide. But he’s still the best there is. No surprise that his old partner comes to him for help with on a new killing: a man kidnapped at the airport and found buried alive, the flesh on his hand flayed to the bone. The killer has another victim, leaving clues for the crime scene investigators about her whereabouts. And New York is packed with visitors and UN delegates attending a major conference.
Rhyme is the only person qualified to solve this case, the only person who can match wits with this Bone Collector, but since he can’t leave his apartment he chooses the beautiful Amelia Sachs to be his legs and eyes in the field—Sachs being the dedicated patrolwoman who first responded to the crime scene, shutting down traffic on two streets and stopping a train to make sure the crime scene wasn’t contaminated. Sachs was giving up her patrol route for a desk job and isn’t too pleased to work with the caustic Rhyme. But over the course of the novel, the reader watches the relationship between those two characters develop. And both Sachs and Rhyme will confront the worst of human depravity head-on as they track down this serial killer, the diabolical Bone Collector…
Both the Bone Collector killer and Rhyme are interested in historical New York, which leads to a lot of historical New York info being relevant to the plot. Deaver inserts the info into the narrative quite well, avoiding exposition dumps or other tedious techniques of the lazy author. And it’s pretty interesting stuff. The Bone Collector ties into a series of murders committed by a Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer from the early 1800s; I won’t reveal the big secrets, but it managed to blend elements of historical fiction with cutting-edge crime scene forensics.
The Bone Collector beat CSI to bring criminology and forensics into the mainstream—I wonder how much impact the novel had?—and it works well as a police procedural. One thing Deaver does that I’m surprised hasn’t seen more use—presenting the list of clues every few chapters, allowing the reader to keep up with the additions and subtractions to the evidence board in the novel. It’s a subtle touch that only takes up a paperback page every dozen chapters or so, but it’s both a helpful reader aid as well as a good way to show the progression of time and acquisition of knowledge. Deaver also nails the lingo and style of a police procedural, really getting into a lot of the details. I should say the gory details, because it’s not a book for the faint-hearted. Since it involves words like “flay” and “carve,” that should be obvious.
The setup brings to mind the Nero Wolfe novels. Wolfe was something of an armchair detective, a temperamental genius confined to his Manhattan brownstone due to agoraphobia. He relies on investigator/narrator Archie Goodwin to do all the legwork, where he and Wolfe discuss the scene of the crime and solve the case. Rhyme falls into the role of Wolfe—the irritable genius, house-bound due to his paralysis—while Ameila Sachs becomes his legs and eyes at the scene of the crime. Of course, the roles have been updated and modernized somewhat, and the two investigators are law enforcement officers instead of private investigators, but there’s some striking similarities in theme. That may be part of the reason it won a Nero Award. The other part is because it’s a damn fine read.
Making Rhyme a quadriplegic was a fascinating choice, but one that came with a few issues: a weird dehumanization of Rhyme due to his handicap. At the beginning of the novel he’s talking with a Kevorkian-esque doctor about assisted suicide, ostensibly because he’s lost the ability to work crime scenes. Why can’t he go out in a wheelchair? I don’t know, Rhyme just says he can’t use them. (That’s convenient.) When his former partner arrives, Rhyme’s described as a broken creature in an unkempt apartment, unable to leave and barely alive. Later, there’s this emasculating scene where Sachs shares his bed. I understand that Deaver’s intent was probably Rhyme’s obstacles driving him to bitterness and isolation, but he seemed to give up too readily. Rhyme’s motivation also felt jerky: after first declining to help, Rhyme changes opinion at the drop of the hat and agrees to help solve the case, then later goes back to contemplating suicide and wants to die before the perp is caught. I’m hoping future novels in the series fixed that awkward presentation, one of the very few flaws of the novel; the other flaw would be some red herrings near the end that felt forced at the time and manipulative after the fact.
Really though, there’s a lot to like about The Bone Collector. The characters are evocative, and the way they and their relationships develop over the course of the novel is quite effective. The plot infuses rapid pace with taut suspense, each chapter always seeming to end on a cliffhanger, making it a legitimate page-turner. And the bone collector himself—seesh, there’s a real sadistic villain for you, with a hum-dinger of a backstory and a slice of historical fiction to boot. If you like a thriller mixed with a bit of police procedural—one that will keep you up at night waiting to see what happens next—this is a book worth looking into. It’s a solid entry from Deaver, a book at the pinnacle of excellent crime/thrillers of the modern era. A smash hit in every regard.