When rookie cop Kevin Kearns witnesses a man abduct a young girl in front of witnesses, he does what anyone else would do and tries to stop the crime in progress. But the man he encounters overpowers him and escapes with the girl. Later, when the girl is found hanging from a tree, its clear that the man in question is a very particular type of psychopath.
Teaming up with a retired San Francisco cop who knows the killer from his days as in Vietnam, Kearns finds himself drawn into a deadly chase across America to stop a man whose twisted appetites are an asset on the battlefield and pure evil in everyday life.
Lynch's debut novel moves at a fair lick. The slam-bang opening hooks your right in, and shows immediately that nothing in his world is safe. There is a real sense of danger that is often lacking from other psycho-thrillers. His violence is messy and unpredictable, and its immediately clear that his protagonists aren't super cops, but ordinary guys as guilty of mistakes as anyone else.
There's a real sense here of mid-period Michael Connelly, around the time of The Poet (which always gets my vote for being one of the most plausible and riveting serial killer thrillers you'll ever read), and like Connelly, Lynch excels in portraying institutions such as the Sherrif's department or the FBI with a sense of grounded realism. Perhaps its his days as a serving cop that help (in the same way that Connelly's crime reporter experiences clearly helped him), but Lynch really sells the realism of his cops in a way that few other writers can; by mixing the procedure with a flawed humanity that exists among those who uphold the law.
There are still a few moments which require the reader to suspend belief just a little (When Kearns and Farrell go on the run, there are a few plot contortions to get them in that situation) but on the whole, there's a real air of believability about Lynch's world that really helps sell the major crime story.
Speaking of believability, Lynch's psychopathic ex-marine is one of the creepiest guys we've met for a long time outside of a creation by Thomas Harris. He's the creation of a certain time and place, and he feels utterly convincing in his psychopathy, still behaving as though he were at war in a certain kind of war. The flashbacks to 'Nam and the world that needed men like this are chilling and bring up all kinds of questions about the ethics of war that add a depth to the book. Lynch is wise enough to pose questions and not provide pat answers, and the overall sense is that our killer is as much a product of the world as he is aberration. There's even a small hint here of classic psychopath Max Cady in our killer's backstory, which will help him earn a place in the memories of crime readers who appreciate a well crafted killer who transcends the archetype to become something more powerful than merelyt an opposing force to our protagonists.
There is perhaps one plot twist too far later down the line that doesn't quite work, perhaps because it is so intent on misleading the reader that it comes off more as confusing than anything else (I had to skip back and check I'd read an earlier section correctly) but it works in service of the narrative, and shouldn't be too much of a worry to readers who are paying attention paying attention. Its a small thing, but in the end it really doesn't matter because the ride that Lynch gives is is so compelling that any small bumps are smoothed out by the time we reach that final page.
With its smooth prose, plausibly flawed characters and brilliant central villain, Wounded Prey is a welcome addition to the crime landscape. Its a read-in-one-sitting kind of book, and promises great things for Lynch down the line. If you're looking for the new Michael Connelly - a big thriller with heart, plausibility and sense of grounding that few other writers can match - then you're really going to want to keep an on Lynch. He keeps this up, he'll be a big part of the next generation of thriller writers.
Russel D McLean for crimescenescotland, 4/05/13