(Random House, 2017)
Set in 1986 Southern California, Alan Drew’s Shadow Man follows the story of Detective Ben Wade, whose search for a serial killer brings to light his own troubled upbringing. Drew’s novel provides a new take on thrillers, with more of a focus on characters and place. In this way, Drew turns the classic detective novel into a work of literary fiction.
Detective Ben Wade, returning to his hometown of Rancho Santa Elena in the hopes of repairing his failed marriage, finds himself on the hunt for the man responsible for a series of murders in his quiet California suburb. Meanwhile, the body of a teenage boy surfaces, with a second investigation forcing Ben to confront past traumas that have affected his relationship with his wife and daughter. The novel also follows forensic specialist Natasha Betencourt as she begins to uncover the town’s buried secrets—secrets Ben has kept for all of his adult life.
Drew’s book opens with a prologue in media res from the point of view of the serial killer. Immediately, we are drawn in with a sense of urgency and even slight confusion as we attempt to orient ourselves in time and place. The serial killer’s narration, occurring in short bursts a few times throughout the book, is written all in italics, with mysterious, disturbing, but beautiful language. On the first page, we read, “He leaned against a tree trunk for a moment and watched them—their tangled bodies swaying in a half circle, her small hand pressed against the boy’s cheek, her kisses wide-mouthed and devouring.” The description and narration seamlessly enter the mind of the serial killer at important moments, lending voice to a sense of psychological darkness.
While the book is categorized as a thriller, it is by no means a thriller in the usual, plot-driven sense. The novel moves at a slower pace, and though, at times, the plot doesn’t move forward as quickly as one would hope, Drew is able to focus on characters and place in a very nuanced way. The descriptive prose drops the reader into Rancho Santa Elena, with sentences like, “They rode through a tangle of manzanita, the branches scratching their calves, and sidled through the shade of gasoline trees until they were in the open again, trailing the backbone of Quail Hill.” Through Drew’s language, we see a clear, vivid picture of Rancho Santa Elena.
The characters, though, are what really drive the novel. We meet Ben, his daughter Emma, his ex-wife Rachel, and forensic specialist Natasha, and as the novel progresses, we learn more about the four characters’ lives and their motivations. The close, third-person point of view provides a sense of interiority as we get deep into the heads of Ben and Natasha and learn what is at stake for each character. For Ben, it is a revelation of his secret past and a risk of hurting his family, and for Natasha, it is her career and personal drive to keep the town safe from a horrible predator. In this sense, Shadow Man remains a highly character-driven novel.
Through these characters, Drew touches on a number of important subjects. He covers the topics of sexual abuse, toxic masculinity (particularly within the police community), and emotional vulnerability. However, at no point does Drew’s writing on these issues ever seem forced or out-of-place, as they emerge naturally through the characters and their interactions with one another.
In an interview for the publication The Big Thrill, Drew says his novel is loosely based on “The Night Stalker,” or Richard Ramirez, a 1985 serial killer in Southern California. However, Drew describes another incident propelling the plot—that of the Penn State, Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal and the town’s response to it. Drew is able to cover these sensitive issues with a sense of realism and care throughout the story.
This is Drew’s second novel but his first foray into the genre of thriller. His first novel, Gardens of Water, came out in 2008 and tracks two families following a tragedy in Turkey. Though they are very different genres and stories, one can still see the same type of thoughtful, literary prose in Drew’s second book.
DEENA ELGENAIDI is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has also appeared in Electric Literature, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Heavy Feather Review, and other publications.