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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 transgressions.

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 sadism.

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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