Unsub: A Novel
". . . a chilling account . . ."
Inspired by the infamous Zodiac Killer who terrorized the San Francisco area in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Unsub by Meg Gardiner is a chilling account of the hunt for The Prophet, a fictional serial killer that rivals Hannibal Lector for sheer evil.
The Prophet marks his victims with the symbol of the god Mercury, as well as leaving liquid mercury on the bodies. Apparently his horrific torture of his victims is not enough to satisfy the monster within him; he also sends taunting messages to the victims’ friends and families.
Like the Zodiac Killer Ms. Gardiner’s serial murderer leaves a trial of bodies before he inexplicitly stops killing. For 20 years. Then he begins again.
“All these years you thought I was gone. But hell and heaven turn and turn again. Angels fall, the messenger descends . . .”
Caitlin Hendrix is a narcotics detective recently promoted to the Homicide Division. “Death came in numberless forms, and she could deal with all of them.”
Then she is escorted to a murder scene by Senior Homicide Detective Joe Guthrie. “It was all coming back to her, everything she knew about the Prophet. The way he’d take two victims at a time and pose them in grotesque scenes . . . The way he’d etch his signature into their flesh: the ancient sign for Mercury, messenger of the gods, guide to the underworld.”
Joe Guthrie has an ulterior motive for bringing Caitlin to the crime scene. The Prophet case is cold, twenty years cold, and half the evidence is gone, taken as souvenirs. The case files are scattered over a half dozen jurisdictions.
In order to have a chance to finally hunt down the Prophet, Guthrie needs all the information he can get, and that means the cooperation of the detective who originally investigated the monster’s first crimes: Mack Hendrix, Caitlin’s father.
Mack Hendrix chased after the Prophet for five years but never caught him. The case consumed him and eventually drove him to a nervous breakdown and early retirement. Caitlin was ensnared in her father’s investigation as a child and has never escaped from the nightmare that was the Prophet.
Mack, now living in a run-down boarding house and working menial jobs because he is mentally unstable, claims he has burned all his notes and refuses to help. “Stay away from this case. Run from it. You won’t catch him.”
Caitlin joins the taskforce on the Prophet to work the files, to try to see what her father and those detectives missed so many years ago. Her lover, Special Agent Sean Rawlins of the ATF warns her to keep the case and her life separate, not to let it consume her as it had her father.
Meanwhile young Stuart Ackerman prepares to meet a young woman in a city park for the purpose of rough sex. Unfortunately, he meets the Prophet instead.
Ackerman’s murder doesn’t quite fit the Prophet’s MO; there is no second victim, but Caitlin is sure there should be. She and the taskforce search for the missing victim. They find a very lucky young woman instead. Thanks to a problem with her car, she fails to meet Ackerman and thus the Prophet.
Bodies keep turning up; taunting notes and phone calls racket up the tension on the taskforce. If the Prophet’s crimes aren’t enough, a sleazy reporter named Bart Fletcher writes a less than flattering article on the Mack Hendrix’s failure to catch the Prophet and takes swipe at Caitlin. “It falls on his daughter, still wet behind the ears, to succeed where he failed.”
The Prophet sends videos over the Internet of his victims, but it is impossible to trace him. Instead Caitlin does what she does best: she looks for patterns. “Guthrie thought she could tease them from the Prophet’s notes. She tried, reading them word by word, syllable by syllable. Searching for the clue behind each reference and metaphor.”
Then another crime scene and information from the medical examiner that the investigators need to wear protective clothing and masks. Mercury fumes are toxic, which explains why Mack Hendrix was mentally unstable and suffers from various physical ailments. Caitlin tells her dad that his exposure to the mercury fumes during the first Prophet murders is responsible for his condition.
Mack agrees to help with the investigation, but he is not allowed to go to crime scenes or have any active participation.
Deralynn Hobbs, a young housewife who runs a website on the Prophet contacts Caitlin. “A busybody who phoned detectives while carpooling with the kids.”
Deralynn is certain that she can help with the investigation, and indeed has discovered one of the Prophet’s souvenirs for sale on the Internet. Caitlin asks Deralynn to flag any compelling information posted on her website. It is a favor that Caitlin later wishes she had never asked.
As Caitlin finds the pattern she has been looking for, she becomes as much a target as an investigator. As she and Sean Rawlins and Mack trap the Prophet in the killer’s version of the Underground, tragedy happens, and Caitlin realizes the hunt for the Prophet has only begun.
Meg Gardiner has brought a new dimension to the sub-genre of serial killer novels. Her killer is a monster, but he is a monster that is more realistic than most fictional serial killers, thus making him more frightening. In addition, Gardiner has created a female detective who is empathetic, tough but not hard.
Caitlin epitomizes the emotional cost a homicide detective pays for doing his job. One awaits for the next volume in the Unsub series to see if Gardiner adds a bit of cynicism to Caitlin’s character. However Gardiner develops her character, no fan of psychological thrillers should miss Unsub.