Jeffery Deaver – The Empty Chair

A couple of years ago (is it really that long?), the film The Bone Collector was released. It was based on the book by Jeffery Deaver, and starred Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. The trailer looked slick: a forensic expert is left crippled by an accident while tracking down a serial killer, and his young protegée must take up the investigation where he left off. Many tense, and intense shots of him directing her actions from the confines of his bed. Very dark and broody, much in the style of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.

Unfortunately, I never caught the film while it was showing at the cinema. Then, a couple of months ago, it was playing on cable pay-per-view. I didn’t see it then, either. But now that I have read The Empty Chair, I sense a trip to Blockbuster in the very near future.

The Empty Chair features the same two main characters asThe Bone Collector: Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia Sachs. Lincoln Rhyme is the world-famous, brilliant, arrogant quadriplegic forensic expert and criminalist who is capable of tracking down a killer from mere grains of sand left at a crime scene. Amelia Sachs is his beautiful, sharp-shooting, fast-driving, former model, former patrol cop sidekick. With arthritis.

To be honest, when I was bombarded with these character sketches (developed over the course of the first few chapters rather than in the space of two sentences) I was put off by their blatant unreality. These people are perfect heroes, with perfect flaws to make them perfectly sympathetic. Over the course of the book, however, they do take on much greater depth and become more plausible.

The story starts with Rhyme, his personal aide Thom, and Sachs travelling to a clinic in North Carolina. Rhyme is going there to undergo radical therapy that may restore some of his mobility. Before he even checks himself in, though, the local Sheriff comes and asks him for help in an urgent kidnapping case. Ga
rrett Hanlon, a local teenager known as the “Insect Boy” because of his fondness for the creatures, has killed one man and abducted two women. The police believe that if they don’t find him quickly, he will kill the women as well.

Rhyme, anxious for nothing to interfere with his scheduled surgery is initially unwilling to lend his assistance, but Sachs talks him into it. They set up an improvised forensics field office at the local police station. Sachs goes out with a search party to try to track Garrett, and acts as Rhyme’s eyes and ears, while he sits like a spider at the centre of his web, evaluating the evidence and clues she finds. All the while, the narrative is cutting between Garrett and Lydia (the most recent kidnapping victim), Sachs, and Rhyme, showing the action from all angles.

At this point (about a hundred or so pages in), I expected the book to turn into a standard thriller cat-and-mouse chase. There would be blind alleys, some of the evidence would be misleading, and the bad guy would seem to gain the upper hand just before the good guys win through. I could not have been more wrong.

At less than half way through the book, the police actually track down Garrett and take him into custody. They rescue his second victim, but he is unwilling to tell anyone where he has stashed away the first woman. This is where the plot starts to take devious turns. All the while this manhunt has been going on, Deaver has been developing an intricate cast of secondary characters. They appear to fall into standard stereotypes: Lucy Kerr, the female cop who feels threatened by the presence of Amelia Sachs. Jesse Corn, the male cop who is infatuated with Amelia. Mason Germain, the disgruntled cop who bears a grudge against Garrett, and who is angry at not being sufficiently involved in the investigation. The three local rednecks trying to hunt down Garrett’s victims on their own to collect the reward that’s being offered.

None of these people turn out to be as straightforward as they seem. But then, neither does Garrett Hanlon….

It’s been a long time since I’ve ever come across a book with as many twists and turns as this one. Every time you think you’re following the main plot, Deaver ties up that thread and reveals the next layer of the mystery. And even though this is a series book with recurring characters, he made me feel like I couldn’t rely on them all finding a happy ending, or even surviving to the end.

This is always a problem with series books, or TV shows: most of the time it is be all too obvious that no matter how much danger you place your heroes in, they’ll make it through to the next book, or episode. Even if the writer doesn’t kill off any of main characters, if they can make you believe that they might, you care about them much more strongly.

Deaver has this all figured out. The second half of the book hits you with reversals of fortune at an ever-increasing pace. Towards the end, every chapter is a heart-stopping cliff-hanger followed by a startling revelation. And while I may not have cared much for the characters at the start, the last few pages produced a minor lump in my throat.

The greatest compliment I can pay an author is to go out and buy more of their books. That is exactly what I’m going to do. If you enjoy a good edge-of-your seat mystery thriller, The Empty Chair is definitely a book for you.