It’s a Mystery: Don’t ever tell a soldier guns are fun

It's a Mystery Irma Heldman.jpg
City of Windows     By Robert Pobi Minotaur, 2019

City of Windows
By Robert Pobi
Minotaur, 2019

Buried
By Ellison Cooper
Minotaur, 2019

Buried By Ellison Cooper Minotaur, 2019.jpg

It’s almost Christmas, New York is in the midst of a blizzard and Columbia Professor Lucas Page is looking forward to getting away from his students and spending some quality time with his wife, Erin, a pediatric surgeon and their five adoptive children. Alas, the best laid plans…a sniper has killed Lucas’ old FBI partner, Doug Hartke, and FBI Special Agent in Charge, Brett Kehoe, wants Lucas Page on the case. When Page was an agent, he could survey a crime scene and automatically convert the topography to geometric forms and numbers. This skill would allow him, for example, to pinpoint the origin of a gunshot in the middle of a city. Then the loss of a leg, an arm, and an eye in a shoot-out put an end to his FBI career and his first marriage, but his mental acuity remained. So, ten years later, his singular talent makes him a hot commodity to Kehoe.  Especially, when a second shooting occurs on the Roosevelt Island Tramway, and the victim is a woman who’s got a badge from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

By now, Page has acquired an unofficial partner courtesy of Keehoe, Agent Whitaker, “a black chick who moved with the slow, deliberate patience of a badass.”

She turns out to be the perfect foil for the often prickly professor.  She is a combination of smarts, curiosity, and fearlessness who also has an unearthly talent for reading Page’s mind. She anticipates what he’s thinking before he expresses it: “It’s something I do. It helps with interrogations.”

Page, no slouch in the cerebral investigating skills department, takes her clairvoyance in stride (almost). [nice] Soon, no surprise, he’s got a profile for the sniper. He shares it with Whitaker while they’re driving to the office:

He has a message—political, social, or economic—there’s just too many criteria in his selection of victims for him not to have a goal. There’s a core slogan in this. A reason. Both victims are New Yorkers…. Both were law enforcement officers…both were murdered at rush hour; both were out of uniform. So we know the guy does his homework. He studies his victims. He works well under stress. And he’s put a lot of planning in this…. But most importantly,” he added, nodding at the white world outside, “it’s his choice of shooting conditions—this weather…. This is a guy who has spent a lot of time outdoors. In the winter. He didn’t learn to shoot like this in the desert. He’s comfortable in weather that scares Frosty the Snowman.”

“You mean like Siberia?”

“Nope,” Lucas looked at the frozen world beyond the windshield and shook his head. “This guy’s homegrown.”

The tension mounts as the sniper’s rampage escalates. He continues to take out cops at a relentless pace. The FBI thinks they have a suspect, but Page is firmly convinced they’ve got the wrong guy. He enlists a few of his sharpest students to help him find a connection between the victims other than law enforcement. 

The trail leads to a sheriff in Wyoming, a Christian Identity group there called The Covenant of the New Order, and a place called Bible Hill. It all comes full circle back to a diner in Manhattan, a waitress called Connie, and a heart-pounding conclusion you’ll never guess. Pobi’s attention to every detail—including navigating the world with multiple prostheses—is a plus. Although apparently we’ll have to wait to find out more about the episode that caused Lucas Page’s life-altering injuries.

City of Windows is a superb, superior thriller. I can’t wait to see more of this sharp, savvy, thoroughly original new hero.

Hard on the heels of Ellison Cooper’s superb debut, Caged (2018), comes the second book in a planned trilogy to feature FBI neuroscientist Senior Special Agent Sayer Altair. Buried finds Sayer recovering from a gunshot wound and facing political fallout from her last case when she worked alongside a serial killer for years and didn’t know it. In the end she and her boss, Assistant Director Janice Holt, exposed the killer and a heinous secret within the FBI. In the aftermath she’s been trying to unlock the enigma of the psychopathic mind. Sayer’s project entails interviews with and brain scans of noncriminal psychopaths. She wants to figure out why some become surgeons or lawyers and others assassins. 

She is called in when her colleague, Max Cho and his cadaver dog stumble on a cavern filled with the bones of multiple human skeletons in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. Another active killer has been at work here! Also on the scene is forensic anthropologist and expert medical examiner, Dana Wilbanks. In addition, she’s the world’s foremost expert on mass graves. Sayer learns Dana was recruited by Holt. Dana and Sayer have a long history together and she couldn’t be happier to have her on board. As they set about their gruesome task of sorting the bones, their lives are instantly imperiled when someone pours gasoline from above into the cavern and sets it on fire. They are rescued by Max and Piper, an old-timer who’s been a park ranger longer than anybody else around. In the wake of the attack, she arranges to step up security around the crime scene.

Turns out the skeletal remains date back almost two decades, the same time a local teen disappeared. Efforts to identify the bones become something more intense when two fresh corpses are found among the debris. The bodies may be connected to a pair of missing women. When Sayer phones Holt to update her she also asks to be officially in charge of the investigation. Holt agrees. Sayer decides to push her luck:

“Any chance this turns into a task force?” Two women dead. Presumably another six or seven people murdered sometime in the past. She needed a team of data techs, a profiler, maybe another investigator or two.

“Not a chance.… The congressional committee’s got half our agents testifying and the other half helping evaluate old cases. The FBI’s the Wild West of law enforcement right now. I’ve arranged for Dana and her team to stay for the duration. Otherwise you’re on your own.”

“I at least need Ezra.” Though he was still recovering from the blast that took both of his lower legs, Sayer knew she was going to need Ezra Coen, the best data-cruncher and computer whiz at the FBI.

“Done. I know he’ll be thrilled,” Holt said.

As the case ramps up, Sayer is drawn into an increasingly sinister gothic landscape, one dominated by a shadowy and dangerous new villain playing a much longer game than the immediate serial killer. Cooper builds up a sense of menace that is as chilling as it is unshakable. Cooper’s razor sharp plotting and deft writing make all the characters memorable. This is a distinctive bunch. Everyone brings unique skills—Sayer’s background in neuroscience, Cho’s Para rescue and K9 experience, Ezra’s knack for computers—to the table. 

But the killer is always at least one step ahead, constantly sabotaging the team’s efforts. Unsure of who to trust, she receives unwanted help from Subject 037, one of the anonymous psychopaths she is currently studying. Everything she gleans about this person tells her he is a powerful player in Washington, D.C., and he has his own ominous agenda for Sayer.

Buried is heady stuff. Without unexpected forensic breakthroughs or any other artificial devices, the narrative focuses on Sayer’s exceptional profiling and detective skills. The upshot is an exciting, superior old-fashioned whodunit.

—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.