Shadow Man is a terrific thriller from new author Cody Mcfayden. I've complained before that the serial killer genre has reached saturation since there's only so many ways a story about a serial killer and the man/woman after him can be made interesting. But Mcfayden proves that the genre still has some steam left in it by penning a book that abides by all conventions of the genre but still manages to be an exciting page-turner.
The book is a first-person narrative by Smoky Barrett, an FBI agent who lost her husband and her daughter in a brutal attack by a serial killer, 6 months ago. She killed the man but the painful memories live on. As the novel starts, Smoky is weighing the two options before her - rejoin the FBI or blow her brains out. Her decision is made easier when a new serial killer enters the picture and reaches out to her personally.
The book creates some likeable protagonists in Smoky and her team. Smoky herself carries a huge cross on her back and as the killer targets her team members, we really feel for them also. So the people who are going to be affected if the killer is not apprehended are not some strangers but these people who we've come to know well. This gives their chase a sense of urgency. The chase itself is quite clever and fast, with the way they advance each step being based on good ol' investigation and painstaking work rather than intuition and guesswork.
The book's biggest strength is that it always keeps giving us something new. Through flashbacks, revelations and new characters, Mcfayden keeps surprising us every step of the way. He takes the story along in expected ways but then blindsides us with something that is completely unexpected. And he does this pretty regularly. He also does so without postponing things artificially like David Baldacci did in The Camel Club or Rowling did in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. So each surprise, when it comes, adds something new to the story and almost every chapter ends with a bang.
Every new book in the serial killer genre seems to up the ante with respect to how evil the killer is and so the books have become increasingly gruesome and violent. This is also the case with Shadow Man, which has a shockingly evil bad guy with a gruesome MO. But surprisingly, the violence here doesn't seem exploitative. So unlike the descriptions in, say, Dearly Devoted Dexter, which conveyed an uneasy feeling, the violence here simply serves to convey the depth of the evil in the villain's mind.
Mcfayden takes a few missteps towards the end though none of them derail the book. Key among this is the sex/romance, which is brought in abruptly and in a very contrived manner and lessens the respect and admiration Smoky had earned until then. The final clue that leads them to the killer also seems a little convenient.
It is always nice to read an author before he/she becomes famous since there's a sense of having 'discovered' the author before the rest of the world. So far David Baldacci is the only author on that list for me but based on Shadow Man, Mcfayden may join the list too.