- - Thursday, December 17, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE DEAD STUDENT

By John Katzenbach

Grove Atlantic, $26, 432 pages

Alcoholism, drug addiction and murder are the deadly ingredients so smoothly blended here to create a first-class thriller.

John Katzenbach delivers an intricately woven plot with sensitively drawn characters, yet it is a mystery where the reader is liable to be riveted by a killer whose personality is irresistible. Fascination with a murderer is especially effective in a book where the scene is set in a series of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where those attending have no names but highly identifiable personalities. The killer is known to himself and his readers only as Student Five, a man who lives in a world governed by revenge.

He has already killed several victims who made the mistake of antagonizing him at a crucial point in his career and he contemplates his success in a philosophical way. “The key to all his killing was deceptively simple: no recognizable signature. When he kills a deer, he is careful that it is a solitary animal, just as he prepares to kill a man.

“Killing was like that, he reminded himself, never exactly as precise as one hoped for nor as sloppy as one feared.”

He makes meticulous preparations as he works his way through his list of victims, and even his telephone calls to them are carefully timed and phrased. He was astonished by how preternaturally calm he’s grown over the years as he perfected the art of killing. He thought it was because he was not the usual kind of killer. “I have become a doctor of death. All I want is justice,” he rationalized his philosophy. He had three different names, three different personalities and plenty of money. At some point he expected to retire in comfort.

Which make it all the more ironic that when he shoots the man who is to be his final victim, things go wrong. He encounters three impediments to his goals: There is the student, who is fighting his addiction to alcohol as he hunts the man who shot his uncle and pretended it was suicide. Then there is the student’s girlfriend who goes by the unlikely name of Andy Pandy and is trying to recover from the abortion she had as the result of a date rape. Finally, and the worst, is the prosecutor, who is addicted to cocaine and trying to save her career by her attendance at AA meetings. She is the one who knows what to look for. Student Five almost reluctantly decides they must join his list of those designed to die. At a time when he thought had completed his mission he has to begin planning again.

Student Five asks himself, “So what is it you want to do now that you’re footloose and fancy free? Now that you’v earned retirement?” And he made the last word sound like an obscenity. He paused. He whispered his answer. “Kill.”

It was a new set of challenges, he acknowledged.

For his intended victims it is also a new set of challenges. For the student nicknamed Moth — he “thought it was almost laughable, a couple of college age kids driving to Key West to become murderers.” He realizes that thinking like a killer is hard to do, and he is rejecting the advice of Susan the addicted prosecutor who has become part of the plan to kill. Susan, who is now addressing an alcoholics anonymous meeting where the members are raging because she has put Moth at risk by allowing him to take revenge for his uncle’s death. It is important to them that Moth succeed in his effort to control addiction, and in their view she has encouraged him to take on a remorseless sociopath, an expert in killing. The addicts in the room surge in anger against Susan, displaying almost a desperate sympathy for Moth. “His recovery was part of their recovery. His life, one day at a time, gave their lives an added meaning.”

Meantime, Moth and Andy Candy are in a room with a gun and Student Five. It is a tense yet tempestuous scene and the killer cannot believe he is in danger. He despises them both and he knows that Moth is on the edge of not being able to kill. Student Five does not doubt his ability to survive.

Anything else said will give away the ending, so I will leave it to readers to enjoy the denouement of this gripping tale.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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