The Art of Violence is the latest in SJ Rozan’s popular and long-running series featuring private investigators and romantic partners Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. Former client Sam Tabor has recently been released from the Green Haven Correctional Facility, where he’d been serving time for the stabbing Amy Evans to death. This event occurred during a party where someone put PCP in the punch, and Sam, mentally unstable in the best of times, was devastatingly affected. When Bill sees him again, he’s ‘Skinny and pale, jittery hands; eyes that looked everywhere but into yours.’ And with a worse drinking problem than ever.
Sam Tabor has been an artist his whole life, but his work was private, unknown. Before prison, he lived reclusively, desperate to avoid attention. Then one of his Green Haven therapists discovered his art, which was full of blood and destruction, and made him into a cause célèbre. The cynical Manhattan art community latched onto him.
The art world’s vigorous, well publicised campaign for Sam’s early release was successful, and now he’s an artistic phenomenon. As he says to Bill, “A jury might have bought the idea I was temporarily out of my mind, but the point, like you say, the point is, I really am out of my mind.”
Bill helped him in his earlier case, and now Sam wants Bill’s help again. Since he returned to Manhattan, two young blonde women bearing a remarkable resemblance to the late Amy Evans have been murdered, both stabbed to death, each after a stressful event in Tabor’s newly free life. He can’t remember a thing about either evening – the drinking and blackouts don’t help – and he’s afraid he killed them. He wants Bill to prove he’s the killer, so he can be taken off the streets, and so the murders will stop. He’s already tried turning himself in to the police, but they aren’t interested. Not yet, anyway.
Sam’s life is a lot more complicated now, given his testy relationship with his younger brother and sister-in-law, who insists Sam cannot live with them. Also in the mix are a manipulative owner of the gallery that shows his work, his failing artist neighbour and a shamelessly exploitative photographer. What’s more, several people in Sam’s life have reasons to want him in the frame for these new murders.
Bill’s partner Lydia plays second-fiddle in this story, though it’s obvious their relationship is strong and long-lasting. A trove of shared experiences means they pick up on each other’s meaning immediately – like couples who’ve been married for years who can send their partner into gales of laughter with just a few words. (‘Paris. That crummy hotel.’)
The NYPD detective on the case, Angela Grimaldi, tells Bill she thought Sam was a ‘freaking lunatic.’ Still, in her opinion, he doesn’t fit the profile of a serial killer. Of course, with only two bodies, the police are not talking serial killer yet, despite similarities between the crimes. Bill suggests they widen the scope of their inquiry, and bingo!, body number three, killed in Hoboken, New Jersey, shortly before Sam was released. Serial killer is more than a tabloid headline definition now. But even if Sam couldn’t have done the first one; he’s not out of the woods on the more recent deaths, and Grimaldi is under pressure to get him off the streets.
An especially appealing aspect of this story is the sympathetic touch with which Rozan portrays Sam and his confusion. He’s the antithesis of the self-justifying, she-deserved-it, stone-cold killers typical of this genre, who delight in recounting their exploits in grisly detail. Sam doesn’t remember any details and is trying to take responsibility for crimes he may not even have committed.
In a way, he may be like the patient in the psychological thriller Primary Obsessions, whose violent thought are just that, thoughts, which in Sam’s case are manifested in his art. Even so, as evidence mounts, the NYPD spotlight turns inevitably toward him, and it would be easy for Sam to talk his way right back into prison.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars