THE KILLING LESSONS by Saul Black
Before I picked up Saul Black’s THE KILLING LESSONS, it had been a long time since I had read a really great cat-and-mouse, detective vs. serial killer crime novel. I didn’t totally understand what this book was about when I picked it up, and I have to say, the inside cover description hardly does it justice. I bought it for its gorgeous cover art (kudos, St. Martin’s Press), and I stayed for its complex, visceral, bleak plot.
This story is layered, so bear with me here. Our main “good guy” character is Valerie Hart, a troubled San Francisco detective tasked with chasing down a serial killer. On the other side of the law, we have two twisted killers racing across the country, leaving the mutilated bodies of their victims in their path.
The story opens with a secluded Colorado farmhouse in the dead of winter, where a mother answers the door to find that she and her two children are the serial killers’ next intended victims. But things don’t go according to plan at the farmhouse, and the family’s ten-year old daughter escapes, albeit with some wounds. Her desperate struggle to survive in the winter of Colorado becomes its own subplot. Meanwhile in San Francisco, our troubled heroine Valerie Hart is battling her own demons. We quickly learn that Valerie will do anything within her power to solve this case; she has proven before that she will sacrifice her own happiness for her job, and she is doing it again. When Valerie’s ex comes back to San Francisco, she once more has to consider where she will draw the line with her work: will she sacrifice everything to solve this case, as she has done in the past?
Valerie’s personal life becomes another subplot, both distinct and intertwined with her pursuit of the killers. She is definitely the story’s “good guy,” but the reader discovers her personal wounds have left her morally, and perhaps mentally, compromised. Add in subplots involving each killer’s background, a mysterious FBI agent who becomes involved with the case, and a woman who appears to be the killers’ next target, and you’ve got yourself one tangled, twisted, disturbing web.
Whew. Now you can see why it took me longer than usual to read this book, and way longer than usual to write my review. Juggling all the threads of this book's intricate plot got cumbersome at times, but all in all, I loved this book—if “love” is the right word for a book that takes you into the mind of a serial killer with graphic, convincing detail. Some of these scenes were actually very difficult for me to take: they are sexually explicit and violent, and while they add to the convincing vileness of Black’s killers, they are difficult to read.
THE KILLING LESSONS is not a book to be taken lightly. Saul Black strikes a visceral chord with his exploration of a killer’s motivations and perversions. This book is a slow burn, layering bleak and shocking images in a measured march towards the end.
One last, totally non-essential thought: this book is set in the US, but the author lives in London. I couldn’t help but feel like bits of his background seeped into the story’s atmosphere. Some of his turns of phrase struck me as distinctly British, and I caught myself having to remind myself that this book is set in America. Not a bad thing, just an odd observation! If anyone reading this has already read THE KILLING LESSONS, I’d love to know if you noticed the same thing.