Let me say from the outset, my crush on Tami Hoag is not of the same amplitude (or orientation) as my crush on, say, Scarlett Johansson, because after all, I have seen Scarlett Johannson in countless movies and television appearances, as well as magazine covers and billboards, not to mention an ongoing series of R-rated daydreams rather more explicit than any of her Hollywood films thus far. As of this writing, though, I have no idea what Tami Hoag looks like, how old she is, how she might fare in a one-on-one interview. What fuels my crush on Tami Hoag is that she is one of a very short list of authors who push the buttons that make me reallllly want to skip forward to the end of the book to find out “whodunit”. This has never been more the case than with her current offering, Deeper Than the Dead (Dutton; ISBN 9780525951308; 448pp; $26.95).
October, 1985: Deeper Than the Dead opens as four kids on their way home from school decide to take a short cut through a heavily wooded area of a large town park. As two of them try to make good their escape from the other two, one has the misfortune to literally stumble upon the body of what had once been a quite attractive young woman. The forensic evidence indicates that the cause of death was strangulation, but not before the body was mutilated almost beyond belief: the woman’s eyes were glued shut, and her eardrums punctured, so she could neither see nor hear what was transpiring around her. Her last moments (or perhaps days) were filled with inner terrors that could easily go one-on-one with those visited upon her by her abductor. Stab wounds on her abdomen seem to form a loose connect-the-dots picture, but it will be some time until sufficient clues are unearthed to make a guess at the nature of the design. To make matters worse, this is not the first of this type of ritualistic killing; similarities not released to the general public suggest that there is at least one more unsolved murder on the books, likely perpetrated by the same person. Add one final chilling thought to the mix: another woman, with tenuous connections to the first two, is missing under suspicious circumstances. No corpse has turned up, but it is only a matter of time, in the estimation of the local authorities.
Enter Vince Leone, an FBI agent from Washington, schooled in the then-cutting-edge art of profiling (remember, the novel is set in 1985, when now-common investigative tools, such as DNA sampling, internet criminal databases, and even the handheld cell phone were some years in the future). Leone quickly narrows the suspect base to a small but exceptionally diverse group: a well known local attorney with a reportedly picture-perfect home life; a mild-mannered dentist whose realtor wife is a screeching harpy; the somewhat scruffy owner of an automotive wrecking yard, a convicted pedophile; and a loose cannon cop with a history of exceeding his authority, particularly where women are concerned.
In true Tami Hoag fashion, the identity of the killer is not revealed until the last possible moment, and even then there are some last-minute red herrings to perplex and delight her cadre of fans, among whose number I count myself. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have a crush on Tami Hoag.
PS, stop in at the BookPage website (www.bookpage.com), and check out the Whodunit? column, this month featuring the latest from John Lescroart and John Burdett, as well as two really stellar debut authors, Belinda Bauer and James Thompson.