Review: Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner

Into the Black Nowhere by Meg Gardiner is the second book in the Unsub series, an exhilarating thriller inspired by real-life serial killer Ted Bundy, where FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix faces off against a charming, merciless serial killer (available January 30, 2018).

Sequels have some inherent advantages. The characters have already been established, the setting has been painted, and the world has been created.

Now it’s time to have fun.

Send Michael Corleone to Cuba and Vegas. Introduce the Dark Knight to the Joker. Let the Empire strike back.

Into the Black Nowhere is Meg Gardiner’s sequel to last year’s Unsub, and she’s having a blast. Gardiner knows her way around a good book series. Her first Evan Delaney book, China Lake, won the Edgar Award and spawned four sequels. Forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett leads four novels in Gardiner’s second series.

In other words, Caitlin Hendrix, FBI profiler in training, is set for a long haul of psycho killers, bodies found in disturbing poses, and thrilling chases.

Unsub, soon to be adapted for television by CBS, was one of 2017’s best-reviewed thrillers, and it’s exciting to see Caitlin back in action so quickly. If you haven’t read Unsub, then you should stop reading this review of its sequel and go grab a copy before I ruin the ending for you.

For those of you who did read the first book, here’s a quick summary of where we left Caitlin: “The Prophet,” a serial killer who’d been terrorizing San Francisco and environs for a couple of decades, is killed after leading Caitlin, her father (a retired police detective who worked the case), and her boyfriend (an ATF agent) into a bloody trap. But at the end of the novel, she realizes that The Prophet had been training a younger killer who escapes.

Into the Black Nowhere picks up soon after Caitlin relocates to the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico, Virginia. There’s another unsub (unknown subject) grabbing women along the I-35 corridor near Austin, Texas. The victims disappear without a trace from fairly public locations: a movie theater, a railroad crossing, their own homes. Victims are found deep in the woods, surrounded by Polaroids of other unidentified women. Caitlin doesn’t think the unsub is The Prophet, but he never strays far from her mind.

One of Gardiner’s skills as a writer is her ability to paint dark portraits without hamming it up too much or over-describing gore. She lets the images speak for themselves, and much of the novel’s violence is reflected through Hendrix’s trained and restrained eye:

“Just beyond the dogs she saw it. They all saw it. A form on the ground, in a soft depression in the earth. She was dressed in white. She was struggling to crawl … A thick smell hit [Caitlin], gamey and putrid. A low grunting came from the darkness. Caitlin stopped, horrified. The girl was dead. In the shadows, a feral hog was gnashing her with its tusks.”

Gardiner has a knack for convincingly scary bad guys, and this novel deploys those talents at full force. The killer in this book is more knowable than “The Prophet.” There are more chapters from the killer’s point-of-view than in Unsub. As a result, this book has a very different shape than its predecessor.

Even more chilling than when the killer is snatching victims (which is pretty scary) are the scenes where he’s pretending to lead a normal life with a girlfriend and kids:

“Strolling down the hall, the images [of his victims] sent a stimulating prickle along his skin. He allowed himself a single smile, broad and hungry, then smoothed his expression and opened the front door.”

Unsub is gripping because it’s a search for a killer that no one has been able to find for decades. The killer could be anyone, anywhere. The search ruined Caitlin’s father’s life. It almost ruined her life. Into the Black Nowhere takes a different course. Early in the novel, Caitlin and the FBI think they've identified the killer. The rest of the book is a game of cat and mouse between the suspect and the FBI.

In the second half of the book, the novel really hits its stride. The game between the killer and Caitlin takes on more and more weight as Caitlin pushes herself to a physical and emotional breaking point to snare the killer. The resulting tension is gripping, and the second half of the novel is as propulsive a crime novel as it gets.

Where I struggled with the book was in the first half. It’s certainly not slow-moving—the killer grabs a victim in Chapter One, and Caitlin is boots on the ground in Texas by Chapter Three. If anything, the book moves a little too quickly.

One of Unsub’s great triumphs was the balance of the mystery with Caitlin’s personal life. Her father’s career, health, and mental wellbeing were destroyed by The Prophet. Watching his journey to redemption is so gratifying. Her relationship with Sean, a single dad who works for the ATF, comes under strain but is never used for melodrama. Caitlin herself spends most of Unsub unsure about her own skills, instincts, and general direction in life.

By moving her to the FBI and killing her father, Gardiner takes away a lot of the personal weight that kept Caitlin and the reader connected. Now, her dad is gone, and Sean is little more than a voice on the phone that makes Caitlin feel vaguely guilty and jealous.

Caitlin really does come close to emotional collapse in a few chapters, but she’s also so disconnected from the grounding influences in the first novel that it leaves the reader a little removed from her.

Caitlin Hendrix is a still a great character, and Meg Gardiner is still a great writer, so Into the Black Nowhere is still very good. I got the sense—both good and bad—of reading a splashy sequel with higher stakes, bigger set pieces, and a scarier villain.

Although … don’t forget, The Prophet is still out there. Into the Black Nowhere ends on a note that makes it clear Caitlin isn’t done outracing her ghosts. The sequel was big. But book three is on the horizon, and that one I’m looking forward to.

 

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Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. He recently completed his first novel. His fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in Kirkus Reviews, The Rumpus, The Morning News, Cosmonauts Avenue, and many more.

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