THE COFFIN DANCER
By Jeffery Deaver
Simon & Schuster, HC, $25
Reviewed by Anthony Smith
Quadriplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme reminds me of a high-tech Nero Wolfe, or a Sherlock Holmes for the information age. What I mean is that Deaver builds on the classic detective tradition of the mental puzzler. Rhyme's mind is an incredible machine, filled with knowledge of the obscure, the mundane. As a scientist in the investigation process, he has built up a wealth of information on damn near everything: sand, dirt, carpets, plastic wrap on meats, duct tape, on and on. So, most of the time, the criminals Rhyme is up against don't have a chance. They can't compete with science. They can't be sure of every little detail, every hair that might fall off their bodies, fibers on their clothes, accidental fingerprints left behind. So the essence of the suspense in Deaver's novels is time. Instead of Lestrade coming to Holmes with a bugger of a problem he's been grappling for days, weeks, months, the cops come to Rhyme within hours of the crime they want to investigate. After that, they get so close to the criminals that the trail is only minutes old. I can't believe investigations can be so fast, but Deaver lets me suspend this for a while. I like how everything is flying by at a hundred miles an hour. Real seat of your pants thriller stuff.
The fact that Rhyme is a quad brings very interesting moments into the world of the novel, as well as ensuring a big cast of characters on Rhyme's team; his protege Amelia Sachs, a young cop Rhyme wants to train up in the ways he pioneered before he broke his neck; Sellitto, the cop who brings the problems to Rhyme and who stays on the case right to the end; Fred Dellray, the ex-undercover FBI man, Mel the lab tech, Thom, Rhyme's assistant ("butler" is a good word for it). Rhyme barks the orders and off the team goes to follow up on or hopefully prevent the next murder. One character that isn't human is the lab itself, all the technology involved in being so cutting edge in criminal investigations. Rhyme's voice-rec computer system, his "sip and puff" wheelchair, the electron microscopes and gasometers and a really neat bed, all enrich the classic detective mold, move it up to lightning speed, much the way Holmes' mind worked: faster than everyone else, always out on the edge of what had been thought or tried before.
In THE COFFIN DANCER, Rhyme is up against the best hit man in the world, one who had never been photographed or fingerprinted. Someone who nearly doesn't exist in the everyday world. He knows his craft better than any killer before him. Rhyme is taking it personal: The Dancer has killed two of his techs before when he left a booby trap bomb behind to obscure a crime scene. This time, the Dancer is after three federal witnesses. That's all I can say. The plot is fascinatingly convoluted, but it's fair. It's logical. It's a mind twister in the best tradition of Nero Wolfe plots. And in the same way that Wolfe did nearly all the work at home while having Archie Goodwin to do the leg work and interviews, I see a similar relationship between Rhyme and Sachs.
This and the previous book, THE BONE COLLECTOR, are great mysteries. For pure plot and adrenaline, for brain teasing, for being in the company of characters as interesting as Lincoln Rhyme and his friends, I can recommend THE COFFIN DANCER highly. And for that, I can forgive Deaver the utter lack of subtlety, wooden dialogue, and dumb forays of overwriting that take me away from the story but are supposed to be "character developments." But hell, I still thought it was great and look forward to the next one. At least, I hope there's a next one. I hope this is one series that will stick around.
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