As of a few months ago, Derek Van Arman was known, if at all, as the writer whose first book — a serial-killer thriller — was dropped by Simon & Schuster. Dropped, you may recall, because ecstatic prepublication blurbs for Just Killing Time from John le Carré and Joseph Wambaugh turned out to be total fabrications. (The author denied any knowledge of the scam.) Well, now that the novel itself has appeared, thanks to another publisher, it seems likely that Van Arman will still be known, primarily anyway, as the writer whose first book was dropped by Simon & Schuster.
Not that Just Killing Time is an all-out fiasco. Van Arman sets up an intriguing, multilayered plot as his somber hero — Jack Scott, middle-aged commander of the federal Violent Criminal Apprehension Team (ViCAT) — grapples with three simultaneous crime puzzles: the gruesome murders of a gorgeous young widow and her two school-age daughters in an affluent Washington, D.C., suburb; the discovery, underneath an abandoned parking lot a mile away, of the skeleton of a black child who disappeared in the late 1950s; and, down in Alabama and Florida, the abduction, rape, and torture slayings of a series of young women. Scott soon becomes convinced that both Washington-area crimes are the work of one ”recreational killer” named Zak Dorani, who supposedly died in prison (where Scott put him) back in 1966. Furthermore, he eventually finds a link between Dorani and the monstrous Laurel and Hardy team responsible for the carnage in the South.
There’s sporadic fascination, too, in the often-grisly details of the high-tech ViCAT investigation. Van Arman (a pseudonym), identified as a researcher for law-enforcement agencies, knows his forensic science — from the lab analysis of a particular wildflower stain to the reconstruction of a recognizable face from a time-battered skull. He’s also good on prison graveyards, advanced wiretapping, computerized police work, and, more surprisingly, rare coins.
If only Van Arman’s writing were as fresh — or as professional — as his research. In contrast with the canny, chilling restraint of Thomas Harris’ serial-killer classics, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, everything in Just Killing Time is overheated: the repulsiveness of the homicidal maniacs, the beauty and innocence of the victims (done to a maudlin fare-thee-well), the vigilante fervor of Scott’s sidekick — a renegade cop from central casting, haunted (naturally) by Vietnam. In one talky scene after another, simplistic theories about recreational killers — they’re just born that way, they’re lurking everywhere — are laid on like sermonettes. And though Van Arman squeezes out a few suspenseful moments as clever fiend Dorani closes in on his latest targets, the story never lives up to its promise — thanks to soggy pacing, outlandish subplots (like Dorani’s connection to yet another supervillain, the country’s most powerful landlord), and periodic outbursts of Rambo-style melodrama.
Nothing for Joseph Wambaugh to get excited about, then. Let alone John le Carré. But for serial-killer-thriller fans, here’s an authentic, verified blurb from EW: ”You could do worse.” C+