Anatomy of Fear

By Jonathan Santlofer

Morrow. 368 pp. $24.95

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Reviewed By St. John Barned-Smith


Jonathan Santlofer's new novel promises a treatise on terror, but the larger theme gets lost in his multifaceted story line.

In present-day New York City Santlofer weaves a complex plot around his hero, Nathan Rodriguez, a forensics artist for a local police station. Rodriguez is renowned among his fellow cops for his almost psychic ability to produce accurate portraits from the haziest of details. The novel pits him against a nameless assailant who leaves portraits of his victims at the scenes of their deaths.

Santlofer describes the assaults from the killer's perspective in disturbing, yet tantalizing clinical terms. As the body count rises, Rodriguez, along with Terri Russo, the detective in charge of the investigation, begins to discern a racial motive behind all the slaughter. A serial killer emerges, bent on wreaking violence on anyone he feels is a "race traitor."

Santlofer was a visual artist who began writing only after a fire destroyed years of work. He is also the author of The Death Artist, Color Blind and The Killing Art. In Anatomy he sprinkles dozens of drawings - composite sketches and character illustrations - throughout the book, giving it almost the feel of a graphic novel.

Santlofer's images expand the substance and ramp up the tension. As the investigation discovers new details, each sketch of the killer grows more complete. The drawings set the stage for a gripping read.

But the novel is flawed by the improbable way Rodriguez's problems disappear. When his grandmother prepares tea for him, Rodriguez thinks, "It seemed ridiculous, but moments later my headache disappeared." He struggles with a lack of witnesses or problems with his girlfriend, and they too magically fix themselves.

This pattern continues as Rodriguez conjures images of his nemesis out of seeming nothingness. The first few times, the device feels clever and original, but it quickly becomes repetitive and unrealistic. In one scene, Rodriguez starts a sketch after a few beers. "I went back to my work table and started a new drawing. I had no idea why or where this was coming from, but stayed with it. When I looked at it I shuddered. What the hell was this?"

The question might well be asked about the book itself.

In a crucial scene, Rodriguez says of his rival, "then I saw something else that cut through the madness and hate and anger . . . it was fear beneath the hate." Here it seems is the book's thematic message, but it gets lost in the frenzy of subplots.

If this were just a story about a cop artist versus a killer artist, it might have worked. But Santlofer distracts the reader from the thrilling chase in this 300-plus-page adventure with a confusing array of subplots - a tumultuous romance, an unrelated murder, a psychic cop, his even more psychic grandmother, and a discourse on religion into the bargain.

And the flow is also interrupted by his inconsistent dialogue. At times he is hysterically funny, as when Rodriguez fends off some street walkers who were "whistling and hooting, offering sex and a good time - though black stubble pricking its way through smudged makeup was never my idea of a good time."

But the majority of the dialogue (spoken and internal) is improbable. Santlofer asks rhetorical questions in paragraph-long chains, perhaps to intensify the plot. In one scene, Rodriguez wonders about the killer, "Had I seen him before? In real life? In a dream? . . . Could Chief Denton be the man in my room, the one my grandmother had warned me about?"

When does it end?

Most of the time Santlofer has the reader hanging, waiting to find out how everything fits together. Yet even after the book's chaotic climax, there's an odd sense that something is missing. Sure, there's no answer to the deeper problems of racism or hatred. But even though Rodriguez might have ways of dealing with one creepy serial killer, neither he nor his creator gives the insight promised in the book's title.

Of course, Santlofer is, in a sense, touching on one of the biggest challenges of being human. Can we blame him if he doesn't have an answer, or can't draw it out exactly like the sketches he includes within the book?

St. John Barned-Smith is a writer living in Philadelphia.