Written by Simon Duke — Let’s start with a YouTube trailer, with some graphic images and moody music – The Perfectionist. Getting the idea? The story starts in a wintry Iowa. It is 1988, and a farmer makes a startling discovery – a man’s head, battered and disfigured, has been planted in the frozen earth of one of his fields. Strange fruit, indeed.
The police chief of Clarion, population 487, is wary of the effect that this grim find may have on the community. So he persuades his buddy, who edits the local paper, to publish a doctored image of the unidentified head, dressing the affair up as a missing persons enquiry, and omitting the crucial detail that John Doe’s head has parted company with his body.
Ambitious local reporter Gerry Stokes has to write the story, and is thus complicit in the cover-up, but vows that this is the last story he will ever write in Hicksville. He packs his car, says goodbye to mom and pop, and heads for the bright lights of Chicago looking for a career break, safe in the knowledge that his part in the conspiracy of concealment will never catch up with him.
The story then jumps to 2010, and Stokes has realised some of his ambitions. He’s now the business reporter for a high circulation Chicago newspaper. A phone call from the past – his old editor from back-in-the-day – alerts him to the fact that a woman believes the John Doe from 1988 may be her missing grandfather, Ted Callaway. Stokes agrees to meet Sarah Howard, and her family photo confirms that the dead man is, indeed, her grandfather. Wise to Stokes’s cover-up, Howard threatens to expose his lack of professionalism unless he takes a break from the day job, and finds out exactly what happened to her relative.
As Stokes tries to retrace the steps of Ted Callaway just prior to his abduction and death, he makes a stunning discovery. Callaway’s murder resembles those of several other people across different state lines, and he believes that if he can identify the serial killer then the resultant true crime book will be the bestseller that will change his life. Three more years pass, and the final action plays out in the early summer of 2013 with Stokes identifying the apparent killer, and bringing him to justice. But something is not quite right, and on the eve of what should be the greatest day of his career, Stokes makes another devastating discovery.
This is a thoroughly readable and workmanlike addition to the serial killer genre. There are a couple of problems with the central character. Given that Stokes is in full time employment in 1988, he would have to be at least in his 40s when the 2010 action kicks in. Yet he continues to behave more like a 20-something who is too much in touch with his own sex-drive. Second, he is really not a very lovable person. Anti-heroes are all well and good in certain literary genres, but in the realm of serial killers it doesn’t help if readers struggle to root for the good guy.
Despite these reservations, there is much to like about The Perfectionist. Stokes’s relationship with his brother is sensitively described and, despite the action sometimes darting to different times and locations, the final 100 pages or so are nicely concentrated, and the narrative is, consequently, much more coherent. I can also confess that I didn’t see the plot twist coming, so Simon Duke deserves credit for that.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars