Shadow Man by Cody McFadyen is one of the most gut-wrenching suspense novels I’ve read in years. It’s as undeniable and as raw as a bare knuckles haymaker in the face. A lot of readers are going to be shocked and dismayed by this one, and even the most hardcore serial killer thriller readers are probably going to be left disturbed.
The first book is really odd in one respect: from the opening page it feels like a sequel, like we just missed the first movie by minutes. I had to go back and check to make sure there wasn’t a previous book because I don’t like coming into the middle of something as serious as this one is. But this is the first book.
Smoky Barrett is an FBI agent, one of the best monster hunters ever turned out by the behavioral sciences programs. She’s also a crack shot. And in this opening novel of what is at least a three-book run, she’s a grieving widow and mother. While in the care of a psychologist, she’s attempting to make sense of the brutal serial killer that targeted her and her family. Her husband and daughter were killed, and Smoky was left horribly scarred. Now she has to figure out if there’s enough left of her to come back to the job. And if there isn’t, why she can’t die.
The opening chapters were so hard and so grim that I almost put the book down and walked away. I knew Smoky would overcome her tragedy because that’s the way these books are written. But McFadyen insisted on wading through the grieving experience inch by excrutiating inch, and I wasn’t prepared to handle that much visceral emotion. I stuck with the book, though, because it was so promising.
The book is also written in present tense, something that usually drives me crazy to read. Greg Iles is a favorite author of mine who writes the same way and it’s taken me years to get used to him. I refuse to make that adjustment unless the writer is really good. Iles is because his plots and characters are so good. McFadyen is captivating in a different way. Reading Shadow Man is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. You know it’s going to happen and there’s not a thing you can do about it.
I enjoyed Smoky’s crew of agents and their problems relating to each other as well as their various secrets that spilled out. But some of them brought me as much to the edge of despair as Smoky’s own losses.
The book wastes no time in establishing another loss that Smoky goes through. Her best friend from high school gets murdered, and the man that killed her soon makes that death more personal than ever for Smoky.
According to the serial killer’s own testimony, he’s a descendant of Jack the Ripper. As such, he has to seek out a law enforcement person who will force him to sharpen his deadly skills even further. He has selected Smoky and her crew, and the timing couldn’t be worse as she tries to find her balance after losing her family.
The novel turns into a cat-and-mouse chase. The killer builds a lot of tension into Smoky’s investigation by doing things to each of the team members that makes them more vulnerable than ever. Some of those extremes bothered me, especially the bits about the dead sister and the dog.
I finished the book, though I didn’t know if I was going to be able to. Things got a lot worse for Smoky before they got better.
McFayden has written two more Smoky Barrett novels and I think I’ll pick them up. Her character is strong and compelling, and the killers she chases are top-notch. But I’m going to make sure I read them when I’m emotionally at my best and can distance myself from the violence.