Written by Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland — Serial killer Dennis Sweeney had a really bad idea: kill a young woman, divide her into parts, package them up, and mail the packages to 30 randomly selected people across the United States. After all, who doesn’t like getting a surprise in the post? Well, there are 30 people in Pieces who will probably never open one again.
Sweeney’s creativity doesn’t end there. He sends an anonymous letter to over-the-hill reporter Jackson Matthews, whom he admires, describing what he’s done and proving it with pictures. He invites the reporter to cover the story and be the voice of his actions. If all the pieces of the girl are found, Sweeney promises to turn himself in. If not he says, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, will force me to start all over again.”
Jax calls the police. It seems the letter isn’t a hoax. Reports of body parts arriving in the mail start to appear around the country. The letter writer also asked Jax to create a clever sobriquet for him and when Jax doesn’t other media outlets step into the breach and begin calling the mysterious package-sender The Hangman.
Bizarrely and you may think, predictably, only 18 of the grisly packages are turned in to the authorities. That’s 12 people who received a body part and did something else with it. The stories of what happened to these dozen pieces of Julie Piedmont make up most of the book. Co-authors Michael Aloisi and Rebecca Rowland treat these 12 chapters as short stories, creating fascinating and quirky backgrounds for the recipients. They are character studies of people whose lives, for wildly varied reasons, make them incapable of the correct response.
Receipt of the package drives some of them to extreme measures; others try to hide the fact; still others haven’t a clue. Apparently none of them pays any attention to the news so they don’t realise they’re part of a bigger picture. I’m not sure all of these chapters would work as standalone stories, but they don’t need to.
The chapters in between catch up with Jax and his efforts to identify and find Sweeney. The stakes increase dramatically when the killer threatens to harm the journalist’s wife if he doesn’t cooperate. Early on Jax is approached by a young man who introduces himself as Detective Connor and wants to ask questions about the letter and probe what Jax knows about The Hangman. Jax soon tumbles to the fact that Connor isn’t a real police detective. He runs a serial killer website with lagging traffic and hopes the inside scoop on The Hangman can renew its popularity. He desperately wants to help Jax.
Connor has a gift for tracking people and a complex algorithm he’s using to identify likely suspects. Jax has no better place to start in trying to track down The Hangman, so despite Connor’s dubious motivations, his leads might actually be helpful. They turn up another set of unique personalities.
There are also chapters about Sweeney himself, particularly his early years with his hard-driving prosecutor mother Karen. At some point, this highly successful woman had a career flameout and now lives in Sweeney’s basement. They never got along when Dennis was young, and they certainly are on the outs now.
With the stories of the missing body parts, Jax’s investigations and Sweeney’s story, past and present, the authors have a lot of balls to keep in the air. They do a nice job of it, the story is never confusing. Probably the best feature of the book are the diabolically varied missing pieces stories, although perhaps two or three fewer would have worked just as well. The tennis-match rhythm of the chapters gets a little exhausting. I felt I had to gear up to take an interest in these various package recipients, though they have only a brief moment on stage.
On the whole, Pieces has a clever premise, innovative format, and quite capable writing that will keep you engaged.
If you like unusual takes on the serial killer theme, try The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana, or The Passengers by John Mars.
Dark Ink Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars