Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the most important elements in most crime fiction novels is the sleuth. Sleuths who are unique, have interesting backstories or in some other way stand out tend to draw readers in. P.D. Martin has created a unique sleuth in the character of FBI profiler Sophie Anderson; to show you what I mean, let's take a closer look today at the first novel in this series, Body Count.
The novel begins as Australian-born Sophie Anderson settles in to her work in the Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI's main headquarters in Quantico, Virginia. Lured away from Australia's Victoria Police after a six-week stint at an International Training Program at Quantico, Sophie's enjoying her new job and beginning to fit in. She's always dreamed of working for the FBI, so professionally, she's pleased with the change. She's made some friends, especially fellow agent Samantha "Sam" Wright, and she's doing well at the agency.
Then, Anderson becomes one of a team of people assigned to the case of the "D.C. Slasher," a particularly brutal and sadistic murderer. For Anderson, one thing that makes this case especially disturbing is her nightmares. Anderson's had terrible nightmares since her childhood, when her brother John was abducted. Now, she discovers that some of the nightmares and visions she's been having recently match some of the grisly details at the crime scenes she and her team are investigating. Anderson's not sure whether stress or something else may be causing her visions but she's concerned enough to confide in Wright. With Wright's support, Anderson begins to use her visions to try to break the case, and she begins to put some of the pieces together. Then, Wright's abducted. Now, Anderson has to trust the psychic awareness she's discovered to help her catch the killer before there's another murder. The closer Anderson gets to the killer, though, the more aware she is that the killer is also after her, and may be much closer than she thinks. In the end, and after more than one proverbial wrong turn, Anderson finds out who the killer is and why the murders have occurred.
One of the strong elements that run through this novel is the character of Sophie Anderson. The novel is told from the first person, so we see the events through Anderson's eyes. This helps the reader understand how Anderson thinks. The first-person perspective also adds to the suspense as Anderson gets closer to the truth about the "D.C. Slasher" and closer to real danger for herself. We also learn several interesting things about Anderson. As she begins to come to terms with the psychic visions she has, we learn that she's had this awareness ever since her brother John was abducted twenty-five years earlier. John's abduction has played a major role in his sister's life, and in part has been responsible for her decision to do police work.
Despite this childhood trauma, though, Sophie Anderson is not overly driven by her personal demons. She's a strong character who does her best to cope with the stresses of the job, her personal burdens and her grief at some of the events that happen in the novel. It's also worth mentioning that despite the fact that Anderson has psychic visions, you can't really call this a paranormal mystery. Those visions are real, but they don't take over Anderson's character or the novel, and her struggle to understand and harness her capability is quite realistic and adds to her appeal.
Body Count isn't what you'd call a typical police procedural (if there is such a thing), but there is a very strong procedural element in it. We follow along with Anderson and the team as they collect and try to make sense of the evidence. We share in the routines of morning briefings and other meetings, forensics reports, crime scene investigations and press conferences. There are also witness and suspect interviews, police reports and other details of a thorough FBI investigation.
There's also a strong effect in this novel of pacing and timing. The pace is quick and the events in the story happen over a short span of time. There's plenty of action, too. For instance, here's a scene early in the novel when Anderson and her team are closing in on the killer in another case:
"Boxley looks at me, silent. I know that look. He's about to take action. He lunges, arms outstretched…. I grab my gun from the ankle holster and draw it, taking the safety off.
'FBI!' It's the first time I've announced myself as FBI and I like it. The adrenaline is well and truly pumping now."
There aren't very many quiet moments in the novel, but at the same time, the events don't happen so quickly that the reader can't make sense of them. This pacing and timing adds much to the level of suspense of the story.
So do Martin's use of clues and the element of suspicion. As Anderson and the team work the case, the clues they find seem to lead in a particular direction. Just when they're following up on that evidence, though, they find that they're wrong. Then, more evidence points in another direction, very close to home for Anderson. Her growing suspicion of one particular person adds a great deal of suspense to the novel as she begins to wonder whom she can really trust. Then, when we discover who the "D.C. Slasher" really is, we discover just how right Anderson was about not trusting people.
Throughout this novel, we also get to see the killer's perspective. At the end of several of the chapters, there's a short bit told from the killer's point of view. Through those little bits, we learn what the killer's thinking and doing and we get a "window" into the reasons for the murders. This, too, adds to the suspense. Admittedly, I'm a reader who isn't much distracted by this kind of switch in point of view; not everyone agrees with me that this element works well.
There are also welcome dashes of humour. For example, here's a snippet of conversation between Anderson and her co-worker Josh Marco, who's just told her to hurry up so they can
get to a briefing:
"'All right, already,' I say, putting on my best American accent.
'You still ain't got it.'
'Yeah, another year and you might be able to pull it off.'
'Well I'd like to see you try. Americans are shit at the Australian accent.'
'I reckon I come pretty close,' he says in a perfect Australian accent.
'I'm impressed. You've been hiding this talent from me for six months?'
'I had to go undercover as an Australian once, but if I tell you any more I'll have to kill you.'"
This conversation also highlights another element in the novel - the camaraderie that develops among the people with whom Anderson works. We get the feeling that they're fully aware that everyone's in the same overworked, stressed situation, and they try to support one another. That backdrop makes it especially eerie when Anderson begins to suspect someone she knows of the murders.
The unique and appealing character of Sophie Anderson, the fast pace and its suspense work well against the procedural-style backdrop of this novel. But what do you think? Have you read Body Count? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 7 February/Tuesday 8 February - A Red Death - Walter Mosley
Monday 14 February/Tuesday 15 February - The Man in the Queue - Josephine Tey
Monday 21 February/Tuesday 22 February - Exit Music - Ian Rankin