the empty chair

I love reading about forensics.

Catching a criminal because of tell-tale threads of fibres or revealing smears of vital DNA is at the heart of shows like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) and many a crime novel. There’s something so compellingly CERTAIN about forensic evidence…even when competing criminalists are arguing that a piece of evidence supports two completely contradictory hypotheses, forensic science demands consideration. The evidence means SOMETHING.

So I was looking forward to reading more about Lincoln Rhyme and his protégée Amelia Sachs, who I have met once before and who I remember as being very much evidence driven investigators.

What’s it about?

Rhyme and Sachs are in North Carolina so that the renowned consultant criminalist can undergo some experimental surgery aimed at minimally improving his physical abilities. (Rhyme is a former police officer and quadriplegic who relies on other investigators to get him the evidence he needs to interpret.)

Almost as soon as they arrive in town the local sheriff, Jim Bell, visits them to ask for their help in a local case where time is of the essence: a damaged young man nicknamed ‘The Insect Boy’ has kidnapped two local women and no one has any idea where he’s taken them or what he plans to do with them. Can Rhyme and Sachs help to track him through his native habitat?

Sachs is keen for them to get involved, if only to delay Rhymes’ surgery, and Rhyme agrees to commit a few hours of his pre-surgery time, but catching The Insect Boy will soon be the least of their concerns…

What’s it like?

Twisty. Gripping. Well-paced.

This is fun to read and it zips along apace, from kidnapping to death to betrayal to, er, more death and betrayal.

Readers of the ‘Lincoln Rhyme investigates’ series will doubtless enjoy the interplay between Sachs and Rhyme as they each consider the potential implications of the surgery and examine the evidence against The Insect Boy.

Newcomers to Lincoln Rhyme rest assured: this works perfectly as a standalone book, despite some musing about the future of Rhyme and Sach’s relationship. The storyline is strongly focused on the existing case, which quickly develops into a more complicated and interesting crime than may initially appear.

The major plot twists begin appearing about halfway through the book – then just keep on coming. This leads to my one complaint: after a series of shocking but convincing twists, the shocks just kept coming until I, personally, wasn’t really convinced anymore, especially since Super Sachs and Remarkable Rhyme repeatedly turn out to be one step ahead of the (increasing) number of Bad Guys.

That said, all the reveals work if you read back over what happened in earlier chapters, I just began to feel a little punch-drunk with all the Surprise! moments. I was still enjoying it though, until the ending jolted me with one twist too many.

Surprise! Bang, bang!

It seems Deaver couldn’t resist throwing in that classic trope from popular horror films: that bit right at the end where you think the villain is dead then – aargh! – they’re alive! and they’re trying to kill you! so you shoot them! and then they’re REALLY dead, phew! Obviously this is NOT what happens at the end of ‘The Empty Chair’, as that would be a giant spoiler; however, what DOES happen is akin to such a scene in that it’s a scene added for shock value that just makes the reader jump, rather than adding anything to the story or characterisation or sense of resolution. It might well make your heart race; it might give you a few extra moments of spine tingling suspense; or, if you’re like me, it might just jolt you right out of the fictional world and force you to return to the beginning of the book to search for clues that this really was a likely outcome for this character.

Also, I dislike it when previously sane characters suddenly turn out to be completely doolally. Give me a cold-hearted, money-seeking, self-aggrandising sadist over an apparently fluffy-hearted but actually semi-psychotic villain any day.

Final thoughts

This was an enjoyable, fast-paced story with plenty of attention to forensic detail and doses of black humour. I liked the way the story developed and became more intriguing than simply “oddball suddenly goes super-odd”, even if by the end the tentacles spread further than I might have expected.

I particularly liked reading about The Insect Boy’s enthusiasm for insects and seeing how that learning could be used to help protect / attack other people.

The ’empty chair’ concept was interesting, too, and I really liked that this questioning technique drew out details which did become important later on.

I will definitely be reading another Lincoln Rhyme thriller and am also tempted to try one of Jeffrey Deaver’s other crime novels featuring Catherine Dance.

Does anyone have any particular recommendations?

‘The Empty Chair’,
Jeffrey Deaver,
2000, Simon and Schuster, hardback