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A Garden of Vipers    by Jack Kerley order for
Garden of Vipers
by Jack Kerley
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2006 (2006)
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

When we join the taut, cinematic action and vividly portrayed characters of Jack Kerley's powerful new novel, veteran police detective Carson Ryder of Mobile, Alabama, is about to embark on his most challenging case. As a member of the southern city's two-man Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team, Ryder joins with his longtime partner Harry Nautilus in an attempt at solving the particularly sadistic murder of Taneesha Franklin, a talented young reporter for one of the city's smaller radio stations.

Soon, however, several other women - apparently victimized by the same psychopathic assailant - are discovered in Mobile, and suddenly the Franklin case becomes even more complicated and critical. One of the victims had been restrained with handcuffs, she had been savagely mutilated, and her badly charred body was discovered by firemen in the smoldering ashes of a burned out building. Another young woman had been physically and emotionally tortured and sexually abused, but had been more fortunate than the others because she survived and now recovers in a hospital.

Ryder and Nautilus have very few, apparently isolated clues - a witness at the Franklin crime scene, the surprising identity of the incinerated victim, and some unusual sensory observations by the visually impaired third victim. Now the two detectives more urgently continue tracking a person who seems well on his way to becoming the city's most dangerous predator of all times.

Then, when Ryder and Nautilus hear about yet another victim - very similarly brutalized and mutilated four years earlier in another jurisdiction - they are finally able to put the disconnected pieces together and close in on a possible suspect. As Nautilus points out to Ryder, 'It's all the same case - find out something about one, we find out something about the other.'

Ryder and Nautilus, however, are about to find out that evidence and appearances can be deceiving, and they will soon discover that finding a way to more clearly focus the blurred lines between innocence and guilt can produce some surprising results.

And there you have the framework for one of this year's most praiseworthy crime novels. A Garden of Vipers is a compelling tale of shameful manipulation, deadly deceit, murderous insanity, amoral greed, and festering corruption. Through some very gritty characterizations and plenty of slice-of-life verisimilitude, Jack Kerley's intricately plotted novel takes readers on a harrowing trip into the nightmarish world of a malignant psychopath - a world that is overflowing with disturbing action and chilling surprises.

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