Noah Boyd on How to Catch a Serial Killer
Thought you might like to hear about my last case with the FBI.
The first three bodies were found in the abandoned Monterey Motel in Highland Park, a small, once affluent city surrounded by Detroit. But the public concern didn’t reach full pitch until the count reached eight, all the victims raped and strangled. That’s when I was called in.
My first impulse when tackling any problem is looking for a way to slice through the Gordian knot, a shortcut seeker’s most reliable tool. What I had learned by working on the Green River Murders and studying other serial killings was to search for a surviving victim; it’s how Gary Ridgeway and Ted Bundy had both been caught.
The first thing I asked for at the Highland Park PD was any tips that had been called in—a technique I had learned during my three months in Seattle. After an exchange of confused looks, one of the detectives said that he thought they were in the third floor (long-abandoned) bathroom. Inside a twisted, dusty filing cabinet, I found about a hundred of them.
One had been called in by a woman who had been raped and then severely choked by a man she knew only as “Tony” before she escaped by running down a busy street naked in the middle of the winter. The assault had taken place in the basement of an abandoned Howard Johnson’s restaurant, which was immediately adjacent to the Monterey Motel. Being an investigator of keen insight, it occurred to me that Tony was somebody we needed to find.
It being Detroit, the woman had used an alias to report the crime and “Tony” would turn out to be a nickname without a single etymological connection to the killer’s true identity. These—let’s call them—big city idiosyncrasies, caused a two-month delay before we were able to arrest Benjamin Atkins and obtain a confession to 11th homicides, along with a planned 12th to celebrate his birthday in two weeks.
Steve Vail, once an ace FBI agent, now a bricklayer (The Bricklayer, 2009), arrives in Washington to take Kate Bannon, the bureau’s assistant director, to an embassy soiree. But his romantic mission is sidelined by an urgent summons from the bureau: a Russian embassy staffer, code-named Calculus, is offering to name Americans feeding sensitive information to Russian intelligence. But no sooner than the bureau accepts the Russian’s terms, he is spirited off to Moscow, presumably to be tortured into admitting what he has done. Steve and Kate must identify the moles and reel them in before the Russians snuff them. But before that can happen, Vail must solve the many puzzles that Calculus uses to conceal information. Thriller fans get an endlessly twisting plot strewn with chases, gun battles, and explosions. Calculus’ puzzles are engaging, and the bureau’s procedural and bureaucratic thickets sound real. Cynics will enjoy the portrayal of all FBI administrators as butt-covering careerists, but Vail, equal parts Sherlock Holmes and Dirty Harry, strains credulity. Not as strong as The Bricklayer, but fans won’t want to give up on the series yet. --Thomas Gaughan