The Empty Chair

The Empty Chair_JefferyDeaver_142540

A FISH OUT OF WATER

5 STARS

In Tanner’s Corner, NC, Garrett Hanlon, 16 years old, orphaned and essentially feral, has allegedly killed Billy Stail with a shovel and has allegedly kidnapped Mary Beth McConnell. He has allegedly put a county deputy into a life-threatening coma using the stings of hundreds of yellow jackets. And we know for a fact, no “allegedly” about it, that he has kidnapped Lydia Johansson.

Coincidental to the entire series of crimes, Lincoln Rhyme, Amelia Sachs and Thom arrive at UNC’s medical center, located only a few miles from Tanner’s Corner. Lincoln is scheduled for major spinal surgery, a procedure that Amelia has serious doubts about. Angry with Amelia for questioning his decision, Lincoln is even angrier when she walks into the doctor’s office with a local law enforcement officer.

Jim Bell is the sheriff of Paquenoke County, where the murder, kidnappings and assault have just taken place. He is also the cousin of Roland Bell, one of the two NYPD detectives that Rhyme works with on a regular basis as an expert forensics consultant. Bell has come, hat in hand, to beg Rhyme for help. His county is poor, with no crime lab of its own, and his police force is now understaffed and over-tasked.

Amelia is all for it, presumably to get Rhyme away from the hospital. Thom is completely against it, as he has limited medical equipment with him to help Rhyme with the physical rigors of an investigation. But Rhyme, after his initial snit over the disruption subsides, sees the threads of a puzzle that needs solving. So Rhyme agrees to help Sheriff Bell for two days, the time he has until his surgery is to take place.

As the flush of joy over having a new puzzle to solve fades, Rhyme realizes that he is at a considerable disadvantage here, and not because he’s a quadriplegic. He is totally ignorant of his surroundings, knowing nothing about the soil, the water, the air or the people here. He is out of his natural element and Garrett Hanlon is not. For Garrett has taken his captives into his own territory, the sweaty, nasty bogs on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp.

Scant evidence exists to aide Rhyme and Sachs in their search. The primary and secondary scenes have been trampled and mangled by a police force inadequately trained in CSI. Private citizens have made things both worse and dangerous as they hunt the boy, not just to find the kidnapped women but for the reward. And one of the deputies has gone rogue, defying orders from the sheriff, intent on killing the boy for the present wrongs and for acts he legally skated on several years earlier.

But Rhyme and Sachs prevail, Garrett Hanlon is caught, the second woman kidnapped is rescued, the deputy’s killing spree is thwarted. The only thing that remains is to find the first girl kidnapped. Then you realize that you are barely one-third of the way into the book, and that is far too soon for the plot to be at this point of completion. Perhaps “alleged,” that word those criminal defense attorneys so irritatingly insist upon, really means something here.

Sure enough, as the old saying goes, the plot thickens. And by the halfway mark, Deaver will metaphorically shove the knife through both Rhyme’s and the reader’s shoulder blades. He will viciously twist that knife and leave you to wonder just how Rhyme and Sachs can possibly survive physically, emotionally and legally.

However, Deaver is not through here. He is not going to let this twist play out logically to its conclusion. He is going to twist and twist and twist yet again. By the time you are two chapters from the end of the book – and it’s a long book – you will just know that if Deaver twists that story arc one more time, even one more degree, you will most certainly have either a coronary or a stroke. The suspense is that intense.

In building that suspense, be aware that Deaver makes use of a great many stereotypes as he plays out the investigation. The story takes place in rural North Carolina so Deaver utilizes stereotypes about Southerners and Northerners, about city cops and rural cops, about women and blacks and crips. And just as he paints some characters with the black brushes of these stereotypes, he uses events and other characters to lay some of those images low and to intimate why stereotypes exist in the first place.

But what Deaver doesn’t do is make it easy to figure out how it’s all going to play out. Just when you think you know who the bad guys are, you find out that you don’t know squat or you find out you don’t know the half of how bad they really are. The only characters whose moral compass you can count on are those of Rhyme, Sachs and Thom. And with trust being in such short supply, the lives of each of them, even Thom, is not guaranteed as long as anyone in their vicinity carries either a gun, a knife, a syringe or a quick fist. Quite frankly, this is an intense page-turner and a psychological stressor right to the very last page.

Cover Art From Goodreads

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