Written by Richard Montanari — When the Rousseau family are found dead in their suburban Philadelphia home – and Mrs Rousseau is minus her face – homicide cop Kevin Byrne, no stranger to horror, is appalled. There are no obvious clues, no prints, no forensics, and no motive. Only when crime scene techs examine the house do they find that Mrs Rousseau’s birth certificate is gone.
Days later, the murderers – Byrne is certain there must be at least two of them – strike once more, and this time the victim is an elderly man. Again, his face is sliced off. Again, his birth certificate is missing. When Byrne eventually finds a neighbour who may have seen something on the night of Edwin Channing’s death, he is perturbed and puzzled to hear that the witness saw a woman in white in Channing’s garden, and he’s convinced that he heard her singing.
Byrne’s former partner, Jessica Balzano, has been working for the DA’s office, but Byrne pulls her in to help with this investigation, which is playing catch-up with deadly and elusive criminals. With a mixture of perspiration and inspiration, the team discover that the killers are connected to one of Philadelphia’s most notorious criminal families – the Farrens. They ruled the Irish American enclave of Devils Pocket for decades, and very few of the Farren men died peacefully in their beds.
Long before Byrne and Balzano cotton on, Montanari lets us know that the youngest of the Farren clan – Michael – has suffered from a debilitating brain malfunction called face blindness. In short, Michael cannot remember faces from one day to the next, even those of his own closest family. He has been like that ever since awakening from a coma caused by a car accident years earlier.
Michael (who has taken to calling himself Billy) and brother Sean are the men responsible for the spate of killings but they prove as elusive and invisible as Celtic wraiths. As with Billy’s mental condition, we as readers are well aware from early in the book that the current murderous events are inexorably linked with events going back decades, and specifically involving two murders. The first was a beautiful 11-year-old girl called Catriona Daugherty, and the second was Desmond Farren, a relatively harmless but simple minded member of the family. We also know that both Kevin Byrne and a current high-flying assistant DA, Jimmy Doyle, were both teenagers at the time, living in the same locality as Catriona and Desmond.
Eventually, the story reaches a violent conclusion, but the catharsis is short lived, as more ugly truths from the past emerge to leave their imprint on the present. The book cannot be faulted as a police procedural, and all the boxes are resolutely ticked. Byrne is a likeable and clever cop, and Montanari paints a fascinating history of Philadelphia’s Irish history and heritage. Billy Farren is suitably deranged, but we do have a tiny whisp of sympathy for the fact that he is being viciously and fatally manipulated.
The downside for me was the immensely complex historical background involving the various generations of Farren thugs and drunks. In the end, I began to lose interest in who was whose father, brother or son. The plot twists and narrative conjuring tricks continued to the penultimate page, and while it was all clever stuff, I felt it was just extra icing on what was already a very enjoyable and well made cake. And the enigmatic title of the book? It refers to the photographs Billy uses in an attempt to circumvent his face blindness, and also the macabre way he records his misdeeds.
CFL rating: 4 Stars