Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo
Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi and, as with Fever Dream, our forensic psychologist with the hero complex has yet again survived to the end of a book. Back in 2003, there was an appropriately titled film called the Bulletproof Monk. Once you realised the hero had supernatural powers, all the silliness of his invincibility faded into the background. When something is explicitly a fantasy, you willingly suspend disbelief. But this book pushes the envelope of credibility as our hero is variously assaulted, rear-ended into a ditch, and shot at on several different occasions. To say he’s leading a charmed life is an understatement. Yet, if you’re prepared to look beyond this blurring of reality, what we have here is an above-average mystery puzzle for our sleuth to solve. After all, to write a series, the author is always obliged to keep the hero alive (or else pivot into a supernatural book in which his ghost continues investigate crimes in the mortal coil — observing what people say and do is not a problem, but telling the police whodunnit is a challenge unless they take instant messages by ouija board).
So where to start? Well there’s no better place than the first introductory scenes which represent one of the best starts to a mystery that I’ve read in quite some time. Boiling it down to its essentials, the narrative structure of this series is for there to be two “crimes” for our hero to investigate. In the last book, we had him consulting over a bank robbery while worrying about why someone committed suicide. This time he gets called out by a country sheriff who has a confessed killer in custody. The “accused” says he’ll take them to where the body is hidden but only if the increasingly high-profile Rinaldi is there to keep him safe from harm (both internally generated and externally applied by the local police). Very reluctantly, he gets into his car and navigates the icy conditions into the night. What they find when they finally reach the house in the woods is wonderfully atmospheric with a delightful twist borrowed from the horror genre. The only problem with such a strong opening is that, by contrast, the pace of the next section of the book feels so slow. Fortunately, the FBI then invite our hero to consult on one of their cases.
Before his retirement from the Bureau, an old FBI profiler had tracked down a serial killer who died while in prison. As a direct result of this death, he may now be on a hit list. Under normal circumstances, he would support the investigation through his expertise but not only has he retired, his mind is also worn down through his inability to sleep properly. He suffers from night terror. Because the FBI agent in charge considers both Rinaldi and his new patient outside the magic circle, neither are given access to the case files relevant to the threat. Needless to say, this excessive following of the book and rigid thinking is not going to solve the case. The real catalyst for action therefore comes when the sleep-deprived old guy decides to exit the hotel where the FBI has him in protective custody. This was not at all what the FBI operatives were expecting and it leads to Rinaldi going out into the field with one of the local detectives to interview a witness who may be able to identify the killer.
In the midst of this, the mother of the man who has confessed to the first somewhat gruesome murder contacts Rinaldi. She’s convinced her son is innocent and a situation is engineered forcing our hero to talk with the “killer”. But as our sleuth says to this highly respectable woman who swears her son was with her around the time of death, “If he’s innocent how did he know where to find the body and why would he confess if he was innocent?” Two very good questions, I’m sure you’ll agree. As is always the case when reaching the end of this type of book, our hero is able to say with compete certainty whether the man who confessed to the killing is innocent and who has been going around killing a prison guard, a judge, a prosecutor, and so on. The fact the key scenes of revelation take place on a factory roof at night gives the second meaning to the title.
Summing up, this is a top-class mystery with thrillerish overtones as our psychologist with an unadmitted death wish triumphs yet again. This is far better than Fever Dream so Dennis Palumbo is an author developing in technique and threatening to become one of the top mystery writers.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.