CAGED by Ellison Cooper
Minotaur Books; 7/10/18
CBTB Rating: 3/5
The Verdict: a dark-yet-predictable serial killer thriller, best for genre newcomers
There are few subgenres of crime fiction as consistently entertaining as a really good serial killer thriller. In fact, no matter your preferred format of crime storytelling, serial killers seem a constant across the board; movies, TV shows, podcasts, fiction, true crime—you name it, there’s a serial killer story that falls under that category. I’m always on the lookout for new, buzzworthy serial killer thrillers to add to my reading list, and that’s how I came to find CAGED by Ellison Cooper, a chilling crime novel releasing from Minotaur Books this July. With a dark premise, complex female lead, and eye-catching cover, CAGED initially ticked all my boxes for serial killer thriller “must-haves.” While I certainly enjoyed CAGED, I would recommend it most of all for readers who are new to the genre; experienced readers of serial killer thrillers are likely to find that the book relies a bit too heavily on genre stereotypes and cliches. There’s nothing hugely, offensively wrong here—CAGED just never quite kicks into the gear I had hoped it would. I’m confident many readers will enjoy CAGED this summer, but I would hypothesize that those who will enjoy it most of all will be the readers dipping their toes into the genre for the first time - not a negative by any means, but a qualification to be aware of. To me, the story of CAGED is most of all a story of unfilled potential: a crime novel with an eye-catching cover and a chilling plot that delivers page-turning entertainment value, but doesn't quite reach the levels of darkness or psychological insight I had hoped it would.
FBI neuroscientist Sayer Altair hunts for evil in the deepest recesses of the human mind. Still reeling from the death of her fiancé, she wants nothing more than to focus on her research into the brains of serial killers. But when the Washington D.C. police stumble upon a gruesome murder scene involving a girl who was slowly starved to death while held captive in a cage, Sayer is called in to lead the investigation. When the victim is identified as the daughter of a high profile senator, Sayer is thrust into the spotlight.
As public pressure mounts, she discovers that another girl has been taken and is teetering on the brink of death. With evidence unraveling around her, Sayer races to save the second victim but soon realizes that they are hunting a killer with a dangerous obsession...a killer who is closer than she thought.
I’ll be the first to admit: I can be a bit of a temperamental reader when it comes to familiar plotting in crime fiction. I discussed this a bit in a recent review for THE GIRL IN THE ICE by Robert Bryndza, but I’m actually a complete advocate for and fan of some of the more “standard” crime fiction plotlines; I tend to consider them “comfort reading.” Every so often, I just want to sink into a crime novel that feels familiar, something that can deliver a tried-and-true reading experience. When I’m in the mood for a “comfort read” like that, nothing suits me better than a classic cop vs. killer story. I picked up CAGED hoping for a similar reading experience: something that adhered closely enough to genre standards for me to find it familiar and easy to binge, while still delivering enough chills and shocks to live up to its “serial killer thriller” classification. That can be a fine line to tread, and it’s a very arbitrary one, bound to differ on a read by reader basis—but, unfortunately, CAGED fell a bit too far on the stereotypical side for me to be comfortable endorsing it fully. Don’t misunderstand: there is a lot of good here, and a lot that will suit readers in the market for a lighter, less gruesome serial killer thriller experience, but there’s a heavy dose of reliance on stereotypes, too. Your enjoyment of CAGED will be entirely dependent upon your comfort level with these stereotypes - and your familiarity with them going into the book. By that, I mean: if you haven't already read numerous serial killer thrillers, you're likely to find these stereotypes much less bothersome than will readers who have already spent time with these same themes and character archetypes in other novels.
So what exactly are these stereotypes I keep mentioning? The most prominent are evident even in the book’s plot description. CAGED follows an FBI neuroscientist, Sayer, who spends her days conducting research on the brains of convicted serial killers. Sayer hopes to find a medical abnormality in the brains of these convicted killers that can help to begin establishing a medical explanation for their deviant behavior. Now, this element of the plot sounded fascinating to me—I love crime novels that incorporate elements of psychiatry. Unfortunately, this piece of the story - one which held such promise - was left largely underutilized. As with so much of this book, there wasn’t anything glaringly wrong here—it’s more a matter of a next step that was never reached. In her personal life, Sayer is predictably detached from her family and isolated from her loved ones. She’s the stereotypical “damaged detective.” Love it or hate it, this is an absolute genre staple—and I, for one, actually tend to love a “damaged detective,” which made my dislike of Sayer all the more frustrating and disappointing. To top off her stereotypical development, there’s just a bit too much melodrama woven into her character to make her believable—readers will find that there is an extremity to all of Sayer's actions and emotions that not-so-quietly undermines the authenticity of her character. The bottom line is this: readers won’t develop the necessary emotional attachment to Sayer to find the challenges she faces - both personally and professionally - sufficiently compelling, because she just doesn’t feel like a real person. So much of this story hinges upon Sayer that the lack of thorough and authentic development of her character did, unfortunately, negatively impact the reading experience for me.
Outside of the character of Sayer, however, there is much to enjoy in CAGED. The premise of CAGED is undeniably creepy: the body of a young woman is found starved to death and held captive in a cage, and the FBI soon realizes she is part of a much larger, and more twisted, story. This plot seems built for TV, and I enjoyed much of the cinematic action and pacing the author utilizes. With straightforward plotting and brisk story development, CAGED makes a propulsive reading experience—one built for a weekend binge-read. Though perhaps not the most fundamentally groundbreaking serial killer thriller, CAGED does include one particularly fresh and unusual angle when it comes to the story's villain: Cooper develops a killer who uses ancient mythology to inform his or her M.O. This was a welcome dose of originality; I enjoyed the genuinely intriguing details this element of the story brought to the table. To be honest, though, no piece of this book caught - and held - my attention quite like the book’s finale. Of course, it’s also incredibly hard to discuss this finale without spoiling anything (which, I promise, I will never do!) - so bear with me while I try and explain. The finale of CAGED packs a punch, and if there were ever a place for a surprising twist to happen, this is (obviously!) it. Though a bit far-fetched, the conclusion to CAGED delivered the tension and suspense I had been hoping for, and tied the story together with the kind of drama that seems made for an adaptation to the big screen. The finale will frustrate readers who are unwilling to suspend reality in favor of entertainment value, but readers looking for something just-plain-fun will find it satisfying and nail-bitingly tense.
Was this a mixed reading experience for me? Yes, it was, and if you’re an avid reader of serial killer thrillers, I’m betting it will be for you, too. CAGED is, unfortunately, just a bit too typical to stand out from the already-crowded serial killer thriller genre. But that’s not to say there isn’t also entertainment value to be found here, especially for readers who are looking for more of a “beginner” serial killer thriller. CAGED is certainly dark and chilling in moments, but there is a fundamental lightness (relative to other serial killer thrillers!) that will make it a more approachable example of the genre for those not wishing to dive into the deep end right away. If your interest in CAGED has been piqued, I would recommend putting a copy of CAGED on hold at your local library before spending your hard-earned money on it.
PS. If you’re in the market for fast-paced, gripping serial killer thrillers that I highly recommend, check out:
- THE BUTTERFLY GARDEN by Dot Hutchison
- THE SUMMER CHILDREN by Dot Hutchison
- THE FOURTH MONKEY by J.D. Barker
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books (July 10, 2018)
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