Review: Writer Spencer Kope takes a risk but it pays off

“Shadows of the Dead,” by Spencer Kope (Minotaur)

“Shadows of the Dead,” the third thriller in Spencer Kope’s “Special Tracking Unit” series, opens with a car crash, the discovery of a bound woman in the trunk, and the subsequent arrest of a seemly deranged driver.

Under questioning, the prisoner proclaims that he intended to “fix” the woman, that she is “number eight,” and that he is doing the bidding of “the Onion King.” Concluding that there may be seven more victims and another bad guy out there, Magnus “Steps” Craig and Jimmy Donovan, partners in the FBI’s Special Tracking unit, set out to hunt them down. The unit specializes in finding people, whether alive or dead, and Steps has a special ability that makes him unnaturally good at it.

When Steps was just 8 years old, he got lost in the woods and nearly died of hypothermia. That changed his brain, causing him to see people as colors. Kope is referencing synesthesia, a condition in which the senses get mixed up, leading people to “taste” words or “see” music as colors. However, Kope takes this to a fantastic extreme.

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His hero sees every individual as a unique color, and those colors remain on everything they touch for years — a huge advantage for a man who makes his living as a tracker. Jimmy is the only person Steps has told about this ability, figuring quite rightly that the rest of the world will think that he is a nut.

By giving Steps this comic-book superpower, Kope has made a risky creative choice. For one thing, it makes Steps’s job easy, limiting opportunities for suspense. For another, Kope’s novels are, in every other respect, standard police procedurals. Fans of such books tend to get exasperated when police work is not accurately portrayed.

However, fans who suspend disbelief enough to accept Kope’s risk are likely to admire the plot’s twists and turns, the author’s skillful character development, and his ability to bring the Washington state coastal setting vividly to life.

Although Kope does not to inspire comparisons to Joseph Wambaugh, his prose style is remarkably good for a career law enforcement official who currently works as a crime analyst for the Whatcom County, Washington, sheriff’s office. He speaks to the reader in an engaging, chatty voice, as if telling the story to his best friend.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”

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