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It is one of the oddities of the serial killer genre that Thomas Harris, who did more than anyone else to make it popular, also ruined it. After the malformed genius of his Hannibal Lecter, readers were never likely to settle for more realistic monsters. This has resulted in a strange dynamic where, since authors are reluctant to present the killers as the mundane schlubs they are in real life, they instead up the ante and give us psychopaths of ever greater brilliance and murders of artistic, even operatic, grandiosity. Every Guignol has to be Grander than the one before. Sure, there are still the gripping true-life stiories, like Zodiac, which keep the bad guy mostly off stage. But in fiction, the killers tend to get equal billing with the cops stalking them. (In the case of Dexter they're even one and the same.) So if you're going to take a stab at the genre, so to speak, you'd better be really ambitious. Steven James is nothing if not an author of great ambition.

In Pawn, the first book in a trilogy involving FBI agant Patrick Bowers, Mr. James combines: a hero who's just lost his wife to cancer and has a strained relationship with his teenage step-daughter; a serial killer who's murdering young women around Asheville, NC, leaving chess pieces in their hands and yellow ribbon in their hair; a copycat killer who turns out to be planning a much bigger crime; a governor with a shady past that includes covering up the truth behind the Jonestown massacre; and a cast of other characters and myriad plotlines, not least the issue of how a caring God could tolerate a world with such great evil in it. Even if the author wasn't so adept at keeping the action moving and the tension building, it would be worth your while just to see if he can keep all those plates spinning without the whole structure crashing down around him. As one would expect in a novel with so much going on, there's plenty of small stuff you can quibble about: there's an Inspector Wallander mystery that includes a similar Jonestown angle; despite a specific threat to his stepdaughter, Bowers brings here to NC; etc. But if you step back you can lose yourself in the larger edifice that Mr. James has constructed and you'll find yourself racing to the end of the book. It's a truly impressive performance and it's good to know there are more to come.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Steven James Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: TheBowersFiles
    -FACEBOOK PAGE: Steven James
    -EXCERPT: from The Pawn
    -EXCERPT: from Story: Recapture the Mystery
    -INTERVIEW: with Steven James (Tim George, 7/01/09, George Unveiled)
    -INTERVIEW: Steven James Answers The Faithful Fifteen (Faithful Reader, March 2005)
    -PROFILE: Steven James Makes His Move with The Pawn (Annabelle Robertson, 11/27/07,
    -ESSAY: Keeping Us in Suspense: An edgy genre takes off in the Christian market (Kimberly Winston, 6/02/08, Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn by Steven James (Publishers Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Betty, Mysterious Reviews)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Christian Fiction Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Jake Chism, Christian Manifesto)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Karri Compton, Suspense Zone)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Melissa Church, Associated Content)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Gail Wellborn, Seattle Christian Book Review Examiner)
    -REVIEW: of The Pawn (Deena's Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Rook (Angela Breidenbach , God Uses Broken Vessels)
    -REVIEW: of The Rook (Illuminating Fiction)
    -REVIEW: of The Rook (Christian Fiction Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Rook (Tim George)
    -REVIEW: of The Knight by Steven James (Christian Fiction Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Knight (Tim George)

Book-related and General Links: