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by R J Ellory
Orion, September 2009
400 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 0752898744

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The serial-killer sub-genre is highly concept driven. Unlike real life serial killers, who typically hop off freight trains or quietly invade apartment houses, cutting throats or bashing heads and leaving a trail of bodies in their wake, the fictional serial killer is an intellectual of sorts, one whose overweening egotism prompts him to lay down a cryptic challenge to the police to find him before he kills more, which, generally speaking, they don't, at least in the short run.

The challenge to the writer who specializes in serial killers is to find a new and unused gimmick and Ellory has certainly done that in THE ANNIVERSARY MAN. He imagines a number of killings in New York City that the police do not recognize as related to one another. But one man, John Costello, recognizes a pattern that links them. He is a survivor of an attack of just such a killer, an attack that killed his first (and to date, only) love and has spent the intervening decades to studying the phenomenon in order to comprehend its cause.

The pattern he discerns is simple enough, once noticed. The Anniversary Man, as he is dubbed (all serial killers have pet names), strikes on the date of a previous assault, mimicking the precise details of the original killings. What makes it difficult to see as a pattern is that the first attacks took place all over the United States, while the present series is confined to Manhattan. Moreover, this particular killer seems to be in no great rush to call attention to himself. But John, who works as a researcher for a New York newspaper, knows all there is to know about the history of serial killing in the United States. He takes his theory to the cops, who are predictably sceptical, but manages to convince one, Ray Irving, and they pursue their man to an inevitable, tension-filled conclusion.

While fans of the sub-genre will certainly find a great deal to like in THE ANNIVERSARY MAN, as a novel it is a bit of a disappointment. According to the author's on-line biography, Ellory had considerable trouble finding a publisher as British publishers were dubious about novels written by an Englishman but set in the US, and American publishers felt much the same. As it turned out, the British editors were wrong (an earlier Ellory thriller was a Richard & Judy Book Club selection). As to the American publishers, I'm not so sure.

Ellory doesn't say why he chose the United States as a venue for his fiction. Certainly Britain does a very complete line in real serial killers, starting with Jack the Ripper and moving briskly on to John Haigh, the Moors murders, the Yorkshire Ripper, Fred and Rosemary West, and Dr Shipman, and that's only the more notorious. But Ellory is led to the US, specifically Manhattan in this case, and it's a choice that leads to a certain insubstantiality, almost a lack of conviction in the narrative. Ellory's Manhattan might convince someone who's never been there, but anyone familiar with the city will be brought up short rather quickly.

What Ellory misses is the feel of New York City streets, crowded with people at every hour of the day. They are absent here. Of course, this does lead to a plot convenience - characters can park their cars with ease wherever they want. I don't think they even feed the meters. It is a city in which the killer can operate with stunning invisibility - he manages to dump a dead body in Bryant Park wholly unobserved, for instance. Just as the serial killer is concept-driven, this Manhattan is also more idea than substance. It seems almost to have been erected from Google Street View, a grid of street names and addresses, detailed enough to keep a cabbie happy, but lacking in life. Inevitably, there are errors - Ellory admits to minor alterations for narrative purposes, but moving Tompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn for no particular reason is especially jarring.

He doesn't do much better with some other cultural details either. His detective eats his three meals a day mostly in the Carnegie Delicatessen, a favourite of tourists. In view of the prices here, he must be doing very well at the NYPD. Ellory imagines that the only non-fictional paper he mentions, the New York Times, has a sensational page three, on which it would be happy to publish a photograph supplied anonymously, not to speak of some truly appalling prose.

Although the suspense ratchets up in the last few chapters, the ending is oddly anti-climactic. The killer is named, but not revealed. He remains elusive to the end, elusive, but not mysterious.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, January 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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