I saw the review for Unsub on a fellow blogger’s site some time ago – I forget who it was, or I would thank them properly for showcasing one of the best thrillers I remember reading in ages. This novel, while not being for the faint of heart, is a compelling journey into the mind of a cold-blooded serial killer and of the law enforcement officers hunting him, in a hazardous cat-and-mouse game that favors the battle of wits between the two opposing forces rather than indulging in the more gruesome details of the crimes themselves, which was the main reason I stopped watching shows like Criminal Minds when the “gore factor” became more important than the psychological analysis, which I find much more fascinating.
In the ’90s, the area around San Francisco was the hunting grounds for a serial killer nicknamed The Prophet because of the enigmatic messages he left on the scenes: detective Mack Hendrix gave everything he had in the hunt for the killer and emerged from the battle devastated in body and mind, while the unsub – acronym for Unknown Subject – was never captured and seemed to vanish into thin air. Now, after twenty years, new murder scenes following the Prophet’s same m.o. are appearing again, and police officers are wondering if their killer has resurfaced or if the killings are the work of a copycat. Caitlin Hendrix, Mack’s daughter and a police officer herself, is determined to find the Prophet, both for the sake of her city and to restore the good name of her father, who is seen as unhinged and unreliable. As the victims’ number climbs, the Prophet establishes a sort of direct communication with Caitlin, with the intent of drawing her into a trap that will destroy her as it happened with her father, while the young police officer tries to stay one step ahead of the killer and to win the deadly game.
The phrase “it was impossible to put the book down” can be found so often that it somewhat lost its impact, and that’s the main reason I usually avoid using it, but in this case it’s the perfect description of what UNSUB did to me: while at times it can be quite distressing because of the Prophet’s brutally arranged displays of his work, it also offers some distance thanks to the emotional difference between the written word and a filmed scene, so that readers can concentrate on the actual clues and on the relentless – and often discouraging – efforts from law enforcement in preventing these crimes and catching their perpetrator. Meg Gardiner draws you into the story in such a way that, just like her protagonist, you need to see the end, see where the deceptively arranged clues and the many twists and turns will lead – and hope that at the end justice will emerge victorious.
I liked Caitlin as a character, mostly because she is flawed and is going around with a huge chip on her shoulder, but her determination in getting at the root of it all and finally catching the killer is strong, stronger than the despair that comes from seeing how the killer keeps eluding the chase: no matter how many hard hits she takes, she keeps trying to move forward knowing that to win the fight she must be smarter than her enemy. Caitlin is not depicted as some kind of super-hero, and it’s her humanity and imperfections that make her so compelling as a character and that kept me glued to the book to see where and how the story would end. And let me tell you that it did not end in any predictable way…
The Prophet, for all his inhuman focus on making his victims suffer and the police feel inadequate and lost, is an equally fascinating character, mostly because he appears quite lucid in his madness and very proficient in advance planning, not unlike a consummate chess player who’s able to plot for several moves ahead in the game. His ability to predict how the victims or the police will behave makes him a terrible adversary indeed, quite far from the mindless killer looking only for a blood-soaked series of murders. There is also the added factor of his choice of messages and murder scenes that take inspiration from a well-known work of literature – one I’m not going to mention to leave the surprise of discovery intact: this element was of particular interest for me because I studied the source material back in my school days, and I was intrigued by the discovery of how certain well-remembered passages were tied with the Prophet’s work and his goals.
UNSUB is a dark story, no doubt about it, and there are moments when it becomes thoroughly ominous and disturbing, but at the same time it feels very authentic – the main reason it turns out to be so immersive. I would not mind seeing it turned into a movie because it possesses all the right elements for a breath-stealing one, but lacking that there are two more published book in this series that promise to be equally riveting: having just discovered Meg Gardiner’s talent, I intend to explore more of her works as soon as possible.