Alice Blanchard's suspense novel, "The Breathtaker," takes its title from the tornado-obsessed serial killer it features, but it's just as descriptive of the effect it will have on spellbound readers.
It is also representative of the talents of Blanchard, whose debut mystery, "Darkness Peering," was one of the best thrillers of the year it came out. With "The Breathtaker," Blanchard proves her first outing was no fluke; she's not only a master of plot and characterization but of action as well.
Once again, Blanchard's protagonist is a small-town police chief with a tragic family past, but the location has switched from staid backwoods New England to Oklahoma's wild and wooly Tornado Alley.
Chief Charlie Grover is helping clean up after the worst tornado to hit Promise, Okla., in nearly a century, when three mutilated bodies are found in a house. At first, it seems the Pepper family has been killed by splintered wood flung with bulletlike speed by the storm.
But Charlie sees some problems with the crime scene, along with the improbability of all three in the house dying in such a manner. The autopsy reveals grisly and strange proof that Charlie is right to be suspicious. All of the victims have had one of their teeth crudely replaced by a tooth from a stranger's mouth.
Charlie investigates other "flying debris" deaths in Oklahoma and Texas and discovers that a killer who is obsessed with tornadoes has found something that thrills him even more than storm chasing.
This happens to be exactly the wrong time for Charlie to be putting in long hours on a complicated and wide-ranging investigation. A widower, Charlie is raising his teenaged daughter, Danielle, on his own. While they get along when they are together, she is beginning to feel neglected and finds comfort with a young man that Charlie considers the town punk.
Worse yet, one of the inescapable suspects in the killings is Charlie's abusive and drunken father, a loner whom Charlie blames for the fire that killed his mother and left Charlie with scars over much of his body.
With the frenzy of news coverage, the killer no longer feels a need to cover his tracks. He accelerates his schedule and even arranges the crime scenes as a taunt to Charlie over his past.
The one silver lining to the gathering cloud is Dr. Willa Bellman, a storm-chasing scientist who eagerly helps Charlie learn about tornadoes and the storm chasers in their area. She is also just as willing and able to help him iron out his personal life.
There is nothing that has been more overdone in the wake of "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs" than the serial killer plot. The poor efforts generally fall into two categories: Been There Done That and That's Not Something Different, That's Just Stupid.
"The Breathtaker" proves that a talented author still can do something original with a thrill-killer bad guy, but there is much, much more to this rewarding novel.
As good as the mystery is - and as exciting as the storm-drenched climax may be - there is just as much suspense generated over personal issues, particularly between Charlie and his father, as over stopping the killer. We are just as concerned for the characters' emotional well-being as for their personal safety.
Blanchard may be the most criminally overlooked writer in current suspense fiction. This is popular writing at its finest, and her absence from the bestseller list -and the lack of a huge campaign to promote her - is a mystery to me.
Perhaps the movie deal in the works for "The Breathtaker" will change all that. In the meantime, as the saying goes, read the book, don't wait for ... well, you know.