BookBrowse Reviews Shadow Man by Alan Drew

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Shadow Man

by Alan Drew

Shadow Man by Alan Drew X
Shadow Man by Alan Drew
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    May 2017, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2018, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Norah Piehl

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The treacherous underbelly of a suburban California town is exposed in this suspenseful novel about a man, and a community, confronted with the heart of human darkness.

Alan Drew's debut novel, Gardens of Water, was an ambitious work of literary fiction set amid turmoil in Turkey. So what led this critically acclaimed, Iowa Writers' Workshop–trained literary novelist to follow up that debut with...a serial killer story? Well, spoiler alert: Shadow Man is not your typical serial killer thriller. It's the kind of book that sets up readers' expectations about a certain kind of "genre fiction," and then completely upends those assumptions, resulting in something both unexpected and thoroughly satisfying.

Ben Wade and his wife Rachel thought that moving from Los Angeles back to their hometown of Rancho Santa Elena might be exactly what they needed to repair their faltering marriage and start over, back in the town where they first met as high school sweethearts. In Los Angeles, Ben was an overworked detective for the LAPD and Rachel was a teacher in a struggling school. Surely the slower pace of Califonia suburban life would allow them to refocus their attentions on each other and on their teenaged daughter, Emma.

Sadly, things don't work out quite that way, and without quite understanding why, Ben finds himself divorced from Rachel and struggling to maintain a relationship with increasingly distant Emma. At least his relatively light professional duties now allow him to enjoy horseback riding and body surfing—until he becomes drawn into an investigation of a series of murders, home invasions in which the victims are caught unawares and manually strangled. It appears that the killer is targeting a certain kind of community—ones just like Rancho Santa Elena.

Ben is also drawn into another death that doesn't seem to be related to the serial killer, this one a (possibly self-inflicted) gunshot wound killing a young undocumented immigrant, living with his parents in migrant housing and using a fake address to attend Ben's old high school. To Ben's colleague, forensic pathologist Natasha Betencourt, Ben seems simultaneously drawn into this case and oddly resistant to pursuing it. Natasha, who is undoubtedly attracted to Ben, is also determined to get to the bottom of whatever is haunting him. Soon she is embarking on a highly unorthodox investigation of her own, one that may force Ben to confront old demons and, perhaps, finally come to terms with what caused the demise of his marriage as well.

Set in 1986, Shadow Man offers plenty of atmospheric details of the era's music and culture, as well as a glimpse back to a not-so-distant time with very different mores and taboos. Drew, a one-time Southern California resident who now lives on the East Coast, also demonstrates a gritty fondness for his former home, with its turbulent surf, rugged canyons, and complicated cultural and political landscape.

Lest I've given the wrong impression, rest assured that Shadow Man remains a satisfying suspense novel, complete with unnerving glimpses into the serial killer's mind and motivations as well as some adrenaline-pumping pursuits. More generally, however, Drew's latest novel offers deep reflections into the ways damage wrought during childhood and youth continues to scar the present. Ben's investigation into the various crimes afflicting Rancho Santa Elena is compelling, but even more riveting—and ultimately the heart of the matter—is Ben's reluctant investigation of himself, forcing him to acknowledge damage and to confront it, potentially at great personal and professional cost. Courage, compassion, and resilience—these are all on display in Ben's story, but not (just) because he's a great cop; it's also because he's an imperfect, thoroughly realized, brave yet vulnerable man.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

This review was originally published in July 2017, and has been updated for the April 2018 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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