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"Things like this don't happen here."
on November 28, 2009
Tami Hoag's "Deeper than the Dead" takes place in the "civilized upscale town" of Oak Knoll, California in 1985. A sadistic serial killer is abducting, assaulting, mutilating, and murdering young women. He is organized and extremely careful to leave no incriminating evidence behind. One day, while roughhousing in a neighborhood park, ten-year old Tommy Crane accidentally comes across one of the victims, who had been "killed and discarded like a broken doll." Tommy and his close friend, Wendy Morgan, are deeply traumatized by this experience. Life in Oak Knoll will ever be the same.
The author's taste for the grisly is in full evidence here. She not only examines the physical damage that one crazed human being can inflict upon another, but also tears away the façade that hides an unpleasant truth from the world. Some apparently happy and intact families are, in reality, deeply dysfunctional. The book's heroine, Anne Navarre, is a fifth-grade teacher who is twenty-eight and unmarried. She has mixed feelings when forty-eight Vince Leone, an FBI man and a pioneer in criminal profiling, comes to town and takes a fancy to her. Should she open her heart to someone who is twenty years her senior and who might leave as quickly as he came? As conditions in Oak Knoll deteriorate, Anne's main concern is for the welfare of her students. She wonders if they will end up in psychiatric care for the rest of their lives.
"Deeper than the Dead" is a suspenseful and mildly entertaining thriller, marred by some prosaic, heavy-handed, and cliché-ridden writing. (Example: "With his victim, he was in control, he could let loose the self that existed in the innermost part of him.") However, some vividly described characters do get our undivided attention: Anne is lovely, compassionate, and altruistic; Vince is tough, clever, and determined. The children's plight is truly poignant; they are at the mercy of fate and their parents; it is difficult to decide which is worse. One twist is that, since the action takes place in the mid-eighties, the authorities do not have the advantage of computer databases, DNA profiling, or other modern techniques to move the investigation along more quickly. Be warned that only those who can handle an uncompromising look into the murkiest and most depressing recesses of the human psyche will be able to stomach the bleak tone of Hoag's latest novel. There is plentiful gore and profanity, and only occasional bits of sardonic humor to lighten up the gloomy proceedings.