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Onyx reviews: Unsub by Meg Gardiner
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 6/11/2017
For five years in the 1990s, a killer the press dubbed The Prophet terrorized
the Bay Area. He
committed nearly a dozen murders and evaded capture. Like the best
serial killers in literature (and like the real-world Zodiac killer upon whom he
is modeled), the Prophet was brazen and clever. His crime scenes were
staged, his victims were tortured, posed and mutilated. He left behind cryptic
messages laden with symbolism (he signs them with the symbol for Mercury), but no usable evidence. He
spread his crimes across multiple jurisdictions and taunted the police and
terrorized family members by contacting them directly with details of his
heinous crimes. He has a mission, apparently punishing people for perceived
Then he dropped off the radar. In the aftermath,
Mack Hendrix, the lead investigator, spent six months in a
psychiatric ward and he's never been the same since. His obsession with the case
drove him to the breaking point and the death of his partner during the final
known crime attributed to the Prophet pushed him over the deep end.
Now, twenty-five years after the first murder, a new series of audacious crimes is taking place. Is it the same killer or a copycat? Many of the
witnesses to the original crimes are now dead and some of the evidence has been
lost or stolen by trophy hunters. Mack claims he destroyed his old notes,
which were posted all over the walls of the family garage.
His daughter, Caitlin, who was exposed to her father's single-minded pursuit
of the unsub (unknown subject), followed him into law enforcement. Now, at 29, after
seven years on patrol, she is a rookie detective. She asks to be detailed to
homicide once the nature of the new crimes becomes known, despite her mother
pleading with her not to get involved in a case that destroyed her father.
However, she has valuable insight into the Prophet's psyche and, more
importantly, a direct line to her father.
This is the 21st century, so a lot has changed in the realm of criminal
investigation, as well as in the scope of possibilities for criminals. The
Prophet is tech-savvy, creating sophisticated booby traps and coming up with
clever ways of keeping tabs on the investigation and investigators. He
live-streams incidents over the internet, fueling frenzy in the city, and taunts
investigators by calling in to live radio shows and issuing countdowns to the
next incident. In chapters of three-to-five pages, Gardiner keeps the tension
and stress at a high level throughout, never shying away from the killer's more
dramatic and audacious tableaus, scenes of horrible torture and unrelenting
Technology and the internet provide different possibilities for
investigators, too. The original Prophet case from the 1990s generated a lot of
interest—a number of true crime books were written about it—and
websites and message boards dedicated to the crimes continue to draw activity.
Caitlin enlists the assistance an "online expert" from one of the
busiest message boards as a researcher, effectively crowd-souring the
investigation. Her father, sidelined but still obsessed, uses the internet to
taunt the killer.
Caitlin is as gung-ho and zealous as her father in pursuit of this killer,
and this doesn't evade the Prophet's notice. He escalates his crimes into a
frenzy, with each one more shocking than the previous. He begins to target
people close to Caitlin, telling her that every step she takes will make things
worse for her and those she loves. The parallels between Hannibal Lecter and
Clarice Starling are obvious.
Clever and relentless despite the high stakes, Caitlin finally cracks the
hidden code in he Prophet's messages and figures out his master plan, an
elaborate fantasy with both religious and literary significance. This leads her
to a climactic confrontation that reveals the truth about the killer and
establishes a highly-anticipated sequel.
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