THE PRESERVATIONIST


By Justin Kramon

Pegasus Crime, October 10, 2013 (hardcover, $24.95)

ISBN-13: 978-1-60598-480-3

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Most predators in nature are stealthy, few choosing an outright attack, instead picking away at the everyday environment slowly, gaining access to the prey by dissembling and deference until it's time to strike.

Human sexual predators can be among the more difficult to detect. They are comfortable inside the general mold, find reasonable community acceptance, and although they are often regarded as oddballs, they still exist within the framework of normality. Psychopaths like Ted Bundy hold down regular jobs, have seemingly normal relationships, and when discovered, are often regarded with surprise by their former acquaintances. "He was a quiet guy," is the usual comment.

THE PRESERVATIONIST deals with such a predator; a rapist and potential murderer who's found a fine game reserve at the campus of a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. The prospects are excellent, young nave women on their own for the first time, many of whom disregard warnings and common sense safety protocols. "I'm a good person and I love everyone. It can't happen to me."

But it does. It happens in the real world and it happens in this extremely readable novel. And this rapist is the dark engine for the novel's plotline.

Three principal characters also propel the story. Julia Stilwell is an engaging young woman, eighteen, slightly reticent about any deep relationship but nevertheless amenable to the possibility. She meets two disparate men and dates both, her affection playing ping-pong between Sam Blount, a quiet, shy man who's not a student, instead works at a campus snack bar, and Marcus Broley, a music major only a year older than Julia.

The novel is written in an easy, modern, and modest tone, expertly creating the characters, the campus environment, and the overall brightness of the narrative, despite the eventual grim resolution. Mr. Kramon skillfully provides glimpses into the thoughts, motives, and inner drive of each character, a difficult task because of the need to create a slow reveal of the complexity of conflicting motives inside the soul of each person.

The book does have problems that arise from the author's decision to focus solely on three principals. Because of the paucity of other well-developed characters, it's patently obvious, and almost immediately so, that one of the two men is the campus rapist. And it's therefore difficult to sustain the mystery for very long. Short of a deus ex machina (which thankfully doesn't occur), the reveal presents itself too quickly because the chain of events demands it. I think it would have been better to introduce other potential villains in order to delay or perhaps obscure the denouement.

The finale is also very reminiscent of The Shining, plot parallels so numerous that they almost seem a parody. I mention this specifically because the concluding story lines of this novel are actually annoying in their similarity to King's book.

These objections are not trivial. I always strive to be fair in my reviews but I'm also not going to pretend that everything's perfect with each novel, and I think that those who read my reviews will appreciate my candor. It's also true, of course, that each review is just one person's opinion.

I generally liked THE PRESERVATIONIST and I also recommend it, with the caveats mentioned. It's just that my appreciation for the author's narrative skills and his fine command of dialogue and description is unfortunately tempered with the wish that the novel were a better vehicle for those skills.

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