Review: Killing Season by Faye Kellerman

Killing Season by Faye Kellerman is an electrifying novel of suspense in which a young man'’s investigation into his sister'’s death draws him into the path of a sadistic serial killer (available October 17, 2017).

For more than two decades, award-winning New York Times bestselling author Faye Kellerman—wife of novelist and occasional collaborator Jonathan Kellerman—has been captivating readers with her sophisticated brand of suspense. Perhaps best known for her long-running Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus saga, she has also delved into non-series titles, YA, and short stories. Her newest, Killing Season, is a standalone thriller that was first released serially as a three-part e-book and is now available in its entirety as a paperback.

Four years ago, 15-year-old Ellen Vicksburg went missing in the quiet town of River Remez, New Mexico. Her younger brother, Ben (more commonly known as “Vicks”), now 17, discovered her body in a carefully dug grave by the river’s edge exactly one year later and has been obsessed with catching her killer ever since.

Despite having been one of the popular kids, Ben—a self-professed math geek and “lone wolf”—has taken to shunning his peers in preference of isolating himself and investigating crimes that bear similarities to Ellen’s case. Beyond his little sister, Haley, and her best friend, Lilly, his closest confidante is stymied but well-meaning Detective Sam Shanks. Is it any wonder, then, that people talk about Ben rather than to him?

One of the peeps to get the 411 on Ben is the new girl, Dorothy “Ro” Majors—an admittedly superficial social climber—who insinuates herself into his life regardless of his apparent indifference. Having lost a sister to cancer, Ro feels like she’s finally found the one person in town that she can be genuine, and genuinely vulnerable, with.

In addition to their shared grief, they both have parents who’ve grown distant in the wake of tragedy and have thus become defacto authority figures to their younger siblings. Though Ro is dating Ben’s onetime friend, comically conceited football star JD Kirk (“after JC, it’s JD”), there’s an undeniable attraction between the two; this flirtation eventually escalates into something more serious, and Ben begins to let down his carefully constructed façade. He even allows Ro to join in his investigation, albeit reluctantly. While their relationship is wrought with conflict, this collaboration on the case proves more sustainable—even producing the burial site of another body.

Adults populate the book as periphery figures—it’s worth noting that their emotional and/or physical absenteeism makes for a convenient plot device—but it’s the teens that carry the story. And though Kellerman does a commendable job of capturing the requisite bravado, competitiveness, insecurities, and volatility of adolescence—particularly as they pertain to romantic rivalries and the uncertainty of post-high school life—her dialogue often rings false. For instance, Ben (who has the habit of calling every girl, whether it be his sister or his girlfriend, “hon”) and Ro take self-analysis to the extreme, engaging in lengthy conversations that are dated in language, overly indulgent, and information-packed. The following is an example that is not entirely atypical of their dynamic:

“Ben, I grew up in Scarsdale, which is a wealthy suburb of New York. My parents are liberals through and through. They are politically correct, antigun, pro-choice, and most of all, staunchly against anything Republican.”

“Then it’s good you came to Santa Fe. It’s called the City Different for a reason. We’re a refuge city—not only for illegals, but also for old hippies, dropouts, and slackers. Which is fine. I’m socially liberal. But I am a law-and-order conservative.”

The author—who splits her time between Los Angeles and Santa Fe, New Mexico—appears more assured in the construction of her backdrop. Consequently, the rendering of River Remez (and its surrounding areas, which Kellerman knows well by virtue of her residency) is palpably atmospheric, with the blinding heat of summer and the bone-cold chill of winter creating exterior manifestations that mirror her characters’ internal trepidation (as well as the predator’s hunting seasons):

Winter came on like a beast.

By late December, northern New Mexico howled with cold winds, freezing rain, and harsh temperatures. Out came the boxes packed with winter wear: the boots and gloves and parkas and waterproof jackets that Ro was sure she wouldn’t need when the family moved to the Southwest. But Santa Fe was high desert and that mean occasional blizzards with bitter nighttime temperatures. It was weird for her to see cacti covered in snow. 

The killer himself remains a presence throughout the narrative, though mostly as a speculative entity rather than a more fleshed-out and fully present character. While Parts 1 and 2 open with brief snippets from his perspective, explaining the means and motivations of his transgressions, it’s not until the book’s final act that the threat of his reemergence in River Remez becomes real. 

It didn’t have to be a certain person. Any female that fit the categories would do. But it would be extra-special sweet to do it right under their proverbial noses, prove that lightning could strike twice, and just maybe it would give him the same thrill she gave him four years ago.

Such sparing treatment is fitting in that it parallels the mysteriousness of the unsub, of whom little is known until Ben and Ro begin to compile, and summarily narrow down, a list of potential suspects that is developed through the kind of ingenuity that simultaneously impresses and repels the cops. (In fact, Shanks repeatedly, and sincerely, tells Ben that he’s smarter than the authorities.)

The downside is that there is no true sense of foreboding until page 500; instead, teenage melodrama largely overshadows the proceedings. And while this allows for the kind of character development that gives the bloody showdown and its aftermath emotional heft (and also captures that unmistakable air of teenage self-importance), it’s at the cost of a more sustained urgency.

Still, Killing Season is plenty suspenseful, both as a coming-of-age drama and a procedural whodunit—even if the two sometimes appear to be at odds. And while the entirety of the story doesn’t always transcend the sum of its parts, there’s no lack of ambition here—which is a credit to the author, who continues to take creative risks rather than simply recasting “the same but different” book after book.

 

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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.

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