Book Review: Blood Angel by Bernard Schaffer
In the third Santero and Rein thriller, Bernard Schaffer reunites detective Carrie Santero with manhunter Jacob Rein—to plumb the depths of a madman’s obsession…
There’s just something so meaty and delectable about Bernard Schaffer’s writing. Every book of his goes down so quickly, leaving me feeling entirely sated. Blood Angel, the third in his terrific Santero and Rein thriller series, is the latest of these.
Vieira County Police Detective Carrie Santero picks up the call on a suicide case that would seem routine but for the oddly menacing letter found next to the body. Someone calling himself The Master wrote to Brenda Drake, promising a reunion, and Brenda promptly hung herself. While there’s no sign of foul play otherwise, Carrie’s too good a detective to just wave the letter off as incidental and begins to dig into Brenda’s past.
Fifteen years earlier, Carrie’s sometimes mentor, Jacob Rein, then still a police detective working a suspected serial killer case with his partner Bill Waylon, is dragged off surveillance to answer an all-points bulletin regarding the kidnapping of a teenaged Brenda Drake. The two investigators quickly apprehend the mentally disturbed 17-year-old Tucker Pennington, and Rein makes perhaps too short work of the arrest and booking, knowing a) that the kid will likely be committed to mental institutions for the rest of his life anyway, and b) that the serial killer he’s looking for is still on the loose. He does note, however, that Tucker alludes to himself as The Master as he goes about stalking and maiming his victims.
Fast-forward to present-day Pennsylvania, where budget cuts are turning loose all manner of violent offenders from state psychiatric care. Tucker Pennington is one of those up for release, and people involved in his case have been called upon to testify as to whether or not he should be let go. Carrie tries to bear witness for the deceased Brenda, but with no proof that Tucker was the one who actually sent the letter, the judge has no solid cause to keep the state from releasing Tucker to his grateful, wealthy parents. Not even the testimony of Dr. Linda Shelley, with whom Carrie has a slightly contentious relationship, can keep Tucker a ward of the state.
A large part of the book concentrates on Linda’s role in Carrie and Rein’s lives, as well as her own background and how she came to be a psychologist. Once upon a time, she was an idealist who believed that she could help fix these broken people before they broke others, a conviction Rein himself told her was impossible, to her disbelief:
“What do you mean it’s not possible?”
“Because a lot of kids are abused and molested. Only one in a hundred thousand, maybe a million, of them will grow up to be a [serial killer]. There aren’t enough indicators early enough to stop them before they develop a fetish for killing.”
“Then I’ll figure out what to do with them after they’ve been identified and make sure they never hurt anyone again. Not too long ago, society viewed schizophrenia as demonic possession. They thought exorcism was the proper treatment. All I’m saying is that maybe if we tried a new approach, we could save lives. I’m asking you to help me.”
Linda’s beliefs are sorely tested over the years, and even she has to admit that some people are just beyond saving. But is Tucker one of these lost souls? Has his condition actually been cured or made manageable, or is he still capable of the violence that got him remanded all those years ago? Could he really be the one sending out threatening letters to Brenda and Linda and Waylon, or is there something far more sinister afoot?
Mr. Schaffer has written another intense, page-turning thriller that doesn’t shrink from gore, esoterica, or stating unpopular truths, whether it be about medical ignorance or underfunded public facilities. His day job as a police detective also puts him in the unique position of being able to write incisively about the state of his profession, which he examines with the same keen wit he applies to the rest of his writing, as here where Waylon is thinking about how his own attitude to policing differs from his partner’s:
Jacob Rein’s police work, Waylon liked to think, was akin to abstract art. The kind critics and college professors creamed their khakis over, but no one else understood. The kind of work important people celebrated, but that normal people had absolutely no clue what to make of. To folks like Waylon, it was all just a bunch of colors splashed around, without form of pattern, too bright and confusing to be assimilated into anything resembling, well, anything. Or everything. He didn’t fucking know.
Bill Waylon’s police work was more like paint by numbers. He was aware of it and wasn’t ashamed of it either, because after years in law enforcement, he realized almost everybody else in the field was still doing preschool-level finger painting. Hell, that was being generous. Half those idiots were probably eating the goddamn paint.
The novel’s dark subject matter and often grim view of society are leavened both by humor and by the acknowledgment of humanity’s goodness and decency, making for a deftly balanced, wildly entertaining read. I cannot wait to get my hands on the next novel, even if I’m super sad (and a little mad) that not everyone from this book will have made it to the next one.