Philadelphia homicide detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano's first assignment from the Cold Case files is the brutal murder of a young runaway. The lifeless body of Caitlin O'Riordan was found carefully posed in a glass display case in the desolate Philadelphia Badlands but, as Byrne and Balzano rapidly discover, she was just the first pawn in the killer's twisted game...
A mysterious phone call leads them on a scavenger hunt for a second victim. This time a young girl has been dismembered, her body parts left in three boxes in the basement of a deserted house. More clues lead to other victims and, as the body count rises, it becomes clear that there is a serial killer on the loose, hell-bent on completing the 'performance' of a lifetime.
As more runaways vanish, Byrne and Balzano come to realize that the homicidal mastermind plans to complete seven depraved tricks in his dark and dangerous magic act. With Balzano increasingly obsessed by a case that haunts her, and Byrne struggling with a loss of his own, the stakes are mounting. But this is one game they can't afford to lose...
The night children, the runaways, come to the city by the hundreds, filled with hope and fear and promise. They gather during the day in free spaces: bus and train stations, libraries and museums, art galleries, and cheap eating places. And that's where Joseph Swann, magician, illusionist and conjuror, master of disguises, observes and selects them for his Seven Wonders project. He has a particular type of girl in mind. Each will be a guest in a room in his house until their great moment.
The year is 2008, the city is Philadelphia, referred to once in PLAY DEAD as Killadelphia. When Joseph Swann was born his father, the Great Cygne, momentarily thought he had silver eyes, the mark of the devil. The Great Cygne was a master magician, and each of girls whom Joseph befriends will be matched to one of his father's most remarkable illusions. Joseph's desire for approval, recognition, and the admiration of others stems from the way his father treated him.
The body of the first of Joseph's victims, Caitlin O'Riordan, is discovered in May 2008, carefully posed in a glass display case. In August 2008, by which time the O'Riordan case is already regarded as a "cold case", the body of a second victim is discovered. The investigation becomes the first handled by homicide detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Baldano after their transfer to the Special Investigations Unit. Even as multi-stranded investigations into the bodies already discovered begin, the serial killings continue, and the reader is "introduced" to new potential victims.
PLAY DEAD is the first novel I have read where I can recall seeing the Aristotelian Incline so obviously utilised. After the prologue which sets the scene, the novel implements a three act structure. In the final part, Death Clock, the action and tension ratchet up as Byrne and Baldano race against the clock to beat Swann to his horrifying climax.
This is my most satisfying read so far this year. Meticulously plotted, full of puzzles, it is bound together by the heightening tension. I would like to hear what a Philadelphian reader thinks of it. It is one thing to read a book as scary as this one from an outsider's point of view, quite another to read it as an "insider".
There is a lot of back story throughout PLAY DEAD, and in places it makes the main story unfold just that bit more slowly. However by the final section I had come to appreciate why it was there. The only jarring note for me was one of the final chapters that, Poirot-like, "revealed all", and I just wish Montanari had found another way to do it.
PLAY DEAD is the 4th in the Byrne and Baldano series:
1. The Rosary Girls (2005)
2. The Skin Gods (2006)
3. Broken Angels (2007) aka Merciless
4. Play Dead (2008) aka Badlands
Review by Kerrie Smith, MYSTERIES IN PARADISE
About Richard Montanari:
Richard was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the scion of a traditional Italian-American family, which means he learned two things very early in life. One: ravioli tastes much better than baby formula. Two: if you don't get to the table on time, there is no ravioli.
After an undistinguished academic career, Richard traveled Europe extensively, living in London for a time, where he sold clothing in Chelsea, and foreign language encyclopedias door-to-door in Hampstead Heath. Needless to say, he hawked a few more ties than tomes, but neither job paid enough to keep him in beer and skittles. So, abandoning his dream (that being to become the next Bryan Ferry), he returned to the States and joined his family's construction firm. Five years and a hundred smashed thumbs later, he decided that writing might be a better job.After working as a freelance writer for years, during which time he was published in more than two hundred publications -- including The Chicago Tribune, The Detroit Free Press, The Seattle Times, and many others -- Richard wrote three pages of what was to become the first chapter of Deviant Way. He was immediately signed to a New York agency.