You can rely on John Katzenbach to turn out a gripping psychological thriller, and The Dead Student is no exception. Katzenbach creates some truly memorable characters and this time around it’s the bad guy who steals the show. This sociopathic stalker has been taking slo-mo revenge on the classmates who betrayed him decades ago. He’s smart, single-minded and assured – exactly the opposite of the young people who find themselves opposing him…
Timothy, the novel’s hero, is a shambles. Apart from a great nickname he has very little going for him – and what little he has is yanked away when his uncle and AA sponsor seemingly commits suicide. Moth doesn’t believe the official verdict that his uncle deliberately bit a bullet. So begins his ramshackle amateur investigation into the death, one which will expose an old ex-girlfriend (who is in a pretty shaky psychological state herself) and a cocaine-addicted, deeply conflicted DA to the unwanted attention of a cold-blooded and extremely accomplished killer.
The good stuff? The writing is clean and crisp and the book is perfectly paced. The protagonists feel real; they’re a bit flaky, fairly incompetent at being criminals, and can’t quite be relied upon to do the right thing. The back story and the villain’s internal monologue are gradually revealed without interrupting the mounting sense of menace. The trail of breadcrumbs through the central mystery is well laid and stands up to subsequent scrutiny (unlike many thrillers where none of it makes a whit of sense once you’ve reached the end). And the character of Dr Hogan is utterly excellent. Katzenbach has a knack for exploring the muddy waters of the human psyche, exposing the deep-seated pathologies which bring credibility to his killers.
The downside? I would have preferred to spend much more time with the analytical thinker, Dr Hogan, than with the impulsive and less intellectually rewarding younger trio. Hogan could so easily have been a more fulfilling ‘hero’ for this story – someone who saved the day through rational deduction and psychological insight. Similarly, I felt that the girlfriend’s story was short-changed. She’s suffering her own emotional angst after terminating a pregnancy… and that could’ve been given much more weight if Katzenbach hadn’t taken an easy option and related it to date-rape.
So it felt to me as if there were a couple of points when this story could’ve been given more emotional heft and intellectual integrity, although it would take the narrative into dangerous territory for any commercial publisher (elective abortion and a silver-haired, thoughtful protagonist probably don’t play well to editorial committees). Instead it plays safe at the ‘coming of age’ end of the spectrum, where young people discover the depth of their convictions, relationships and responsibilities.
The Dead Student is a thoroughly enjoyable, solidly constructed and easily absorbed psychological thriller. It’s engaging and entertaining, and delivers plenty of tense entertainment.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Dead Student by John Katzenbach is available as a hardback or ebook
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