Title: The Anniversary Man
Paperback: 452 pages
Publication Date: 15/04/2010
For sixteen-year-old John Costello the summer of 1984 seems perfect as first love blossoms with the beautiful Nadia McGowan. But tragedy strikes when the couple become the victims of the brutal ‘Hammer of God’ killer who has been terrorising New Jersey City. John survives, Nadia does not. Retreating from society, John becomes obsessed with serial killers, driven by a need to understand why? So, when twenty years later a series of horrific but seemingly unconnected murders occur leaving the NYPD mystified, it is John who spots a pattern – that each murder replicates killings committed by US serial killers [including John Wayne Gacy, the Zodiac Killer, Arthur Shawcross, Kenneth McDuff and The Hillside Stranglers] and takes place on the anniversaries of these crimes.
Costello’s revelation brings with it suspicion, the police viewing him as a potential suspect [as quite frankly you would if a mysterious, OCD-suffering recluse suddenly claimed that a number of seemingly disparate murders were linked]. But as the slayings continue, and the police are left with no leads, it isn’t long before lead detective Ray Irving has enlisted John’s help as he enters the seedy underworld of murderabilia in his search for his elusive quarry, dubbed The Anniversary Man. And the killer’s apparently patternless MO makes him almost impossible to predict, whilst Irving’s investigation isn’t helped by bureaucratic red tape, a shortage of resources and man-power and his superiors’ attempts to keep the possibility that a serial killer may be on the loose away from the media [a decision that you know will only have disastrous consequences].
There is a cinematic/visual quality to this novel and I could easily see it making a brilliant film [which isn’t to say that it isn’t also a great read – which it is]. The prose itself is functional and not overly ornate, almost like it could be a police report, and this makes for an assertive narrative style that focuses the reader’s attention on the story. Another strength of the book was Ellory’s ability to avoid many of the tired formulas that tend to pull down serial killer novels. Rather than describing every time The Anniversary Man strikes [which would become repetitive and desensitise the reader to the violence], most of the deaths are happen off the page [so to speak]. On the one hand this adds to the sense of tension – the reader constantly wondering when the next body will be discovered. And on the other hand, it makes the few times that Ellory chooses to describe The Anniversary Man ‘at work’ all the more compelling and horrific.
Gripping from start to finish and filled with twists and cul de sacs a plenty, The Anniversary Man shows that a crime novel can be fast-paced and compelling without having to rely upon a succession of over-the-top action scenes. And with its eponymous killer mimicking crimes that really occurred this novel is a chillingly stark reminder of just how evil man can be. My first experience of R.J. Ellory’s work, this was a brilliant read, proving the praise for the author is completely warranted [and I’m now really looking forward to reading his backlist].