Sometimes, not very often granted, a blurb on the front of a book nails it for me. In the case of THE ANNIVERSARY MAN the blurb from Clive Cussler is "The perfect author to read late into the night". I'd definitely advise that you catch up on your sleep before you pick up a book by R.J. Ellory. This is the second of his that I've read now and both of them have kept me up way too late, or found me sneaking out to hide in the chook sheds and grab a little time with the book when I really should have been working.
THE ANNIVERSARY MAN is the story of a serial killer, but don't let that put you off. The killer is not the focus of this book, there's none of that "in the head of" stuff going on. Instead, you get a glimpse into the life of a victim who survived and the cop who, many years later, finds himself looking to that victim for guidance on what is driving a current day killer. John Costello is the victim who survived when his girlfriend and he were attacked as teenagers. His killer caught, John was left to recover from his physical injuries and find a way to live his life and deal with the mental trauma of what he had been through. His way of coping is to know serial killers and their victims. To see the patterns, I suppose to try to understand why. Karen Langley is the crime reporter for whom John works as a researcher. She knows little about John's personal life, but she is extremely protective of him. Ray Irving is a cop with his own trauma. A natural loner, the death of his long-term girlfriend has taken away Ray's anchor, left him blindsided in a way that he has no idea how to handle. In a poignant and almost sad way, a series of killings that eventually sync up to be copies of previous serial killer's acts becomes Ray's personal crusade. A desire to stop the Anniversary Killer drives him, his ability to throw himself into the investigation despite barriers, seems to be his need to be relevant, wanted, busy, connected to the world again. Ray and Karen and John somehow have to feel their way into a working relationship, maybe the potential of a personal relationship between Ray and Karen, but somehow these three people have to band together to help find a dangerous, inexplicable serial killer who seems unstoppable.
This is a very different serial killing book. The murders that are happening are all as close to identical to the past events as the killer can make them, right down to the dates, methodology, the scenes of the crime. But the Anniversary Killer is emulating more than one past serial killer so part of the investigation must be to solve how this person has such detailed knowledge. There's also the never-ending question of why. More chillingly, what next. And that is where John's particular knowledge becomes something Ray relies on - finding the next anniversary, working out where the killer is likely to strike. The relationship that builds between Ray, Karen and John is beautifully done - the potential of a new romance touching and not at all distracting; Karen's protectiveness towards John nicely balanced; John's life somewhat shadowy, his knowledge completely understandable, and so touching.
THE ANNIVERSARY MAN was as close to perfect a reading experience as I've had in quite a while, I really did not want to put this book down. Why? Possibly because the crimes, as confrontational and awful as they are, were used as a catalyst for other people's reactions or actions. The characters in this book aren't perfect, perhaps a little overtly damaged in some cases, but the insight into human behaviour was both illuminating and touching. And there's no Hollywood ending here - it's real, and it hurt and whilst, you may have an inkling of what's coming, there was just enough to make you wonder if Ellory would really go through with it. There is also that something that just works for particular readers - I really believed in Ray. I really wanted him to succeed, solve the crimes, get the girl, become best mates with John and ride off into the sunset to a happy place. And most importantly, I can happily forgive him for anything he didn't quite manage to do.