by Bill Cameron
Published by Midnight Ink
373 pages, 2007
Stuffed Animals, Great Coffee, Dead Bodies
Reviewed by James R. Winter
Peter McKrall lives life in neutral. A kleptomaniac whose problem cost him his job with a bank, he now lives rent-free off his sister in a house she owns in Portland, Oregon. There, he tries to figure out his next move. Unfortunately, aside from keeping his plants watered and rebuilding his Land Rover, employment doesn't really hold much appeal for Peter. This drives his sister, Abby, up the wall.
Rain. That'd be an excuse. He bent and stretched and thought about his niece, Julie, asleep in the guest room. His sister and her husband, David, had come with Julie for Christmas and to check up on the house. Peter had been renting the place from them on the cheap since they moved to Seattle a couple years before, an arrangement originally intended to be temporary but which had grown permanent through the power of Peter's inertia and the pleasure Abby took in having Peter in her debt.
That's Peter's life in a nutshell. But then he finds the body of a woman in a nearby playground. He wasn't looking for a corpse. He was looking for a tattered and worn, stuffed dog named Patches, which little Julie had lost over the weekend.
For Peter, this discovery is a shock to the system. The murder soon puts him into the presence of an abrasive cop, "Skin" Kadash, and a sympathetic but business-like detective named Susan Mulvaney. They take his statement, and that should be the end of it. However, an ambitious news reporter shoves a mike into Peter's face. On camera, the gravity of the situation overwhelms him.
And the killer watches it all on television.
The guy shook his head. "No one else from the neighborhood is dead and dumped in the park. No one else is being gaped at and prodded like a piece of mea -- " He stopped and ran his hand through his messy hair. Geez, you'd think it was his sister or something. "The only thing I can say is that I don't care if it's about drugs or what," the man continued. "I hope they nail this psycho to the wall."
That statement sets off our killer, known through most of this book simply as "Jake." He takes McKrall's rant personally. Soon, he comes to believe, with no rational explanation of why, that McKrall is out to get him. Jake decides to get even. He kills another woman nearby and tries to frame McKrall for both slayings. Jake is obsessive and irrational, a bundle of blind rage looking for a target. When he kills an old lady, he wonders why so much attention is given to the murder. It's like "the President's daughter," he thinks. Soon, in Jake's twisted version of logic, he's wondering what the President's daughter was doing way out in Portland. His rage, though, is focused on McKrall, whom he starts calling "Peterhead," then "Peterhead Mackerel. Oh, yes. Jake is unhinged. So much so that he sucks on his gun barrel when he's excited.
But Jake isn't the only one watching the television when Peter loses his cool over the first killing. A desperate, frightened woman calling herself simply "Darla" begins calling Peter at odd hours, wanting to talk to him, afraid of the cops. It was apparently her mother whom Peter found, and after his display for the FOX-TV 12 cameras, Darla has come to believe that he's the only person in Portland who even gave a damn about what happened to her parent.
Jake's obsession and Darla's fears draw Peter into a dark, dysfunctional family tragedy that's still playing out. Officer Kadash senses that something's not right. Detective Mulvaney is waiting to see if McKrall really is the killer. Another cop named Richard Owen (whom Kadash relishes calling "Dick" for obvious reasons) could care less. He sees two bodies, evidence pointing to McKrall, and an easy clearance of the case. He also sees a pattern in McKrall's past, a pattern involving his parents.
What saves Peter both from Jake's insane wrath and from Mulvaney's suspicions is a chance meeting with Ruby Jane Whittaker. She owns The Uncommon Cup, the coffee shop where Peter meets Darla for the first time. He ends up back there first by chance, then maybe on purpose. A day spent with Ruby Jane not only gives Peter an alibi when things start to turn sour, but it gives his life a reboot, as well. He comes in wanting to talk to Ruby Jane and get his head together, and ends up spending the night with her. "You're a curiosity," she tells him, and slowly, Peter re-evaluates his life.
Spending the night with Ruby Jane also stimulates his old kleptomania. Only he finds that he can't steal a simple pen -- an insignificant item -- from her.
If this book has any flaw, it's to be found in how quickly and unconditionally Ruby Jane accepts Peter McKrall. A man on the periphery of three murders by the time the book ends wanders into her life, and she treats him like she's been waiting a lifetime for his company.
Still, Portland author Bill Cameron balances this out by using Ruby Jane as a catalyst. While I'd like to have seen a little more tension, a little bit of conflict, between the two, Ruby Jane is a compelling enough figure to make up for a rather hastily realized love affair, which is the novel's only true weakness. Sure, Kadash and Owen are cop characters we've seen before, but Cameron gives them motivation, a rhyme and a reason to their archetypal behavior. And Ruby Jane's best asset comes from making Peter McKrall, a colorless man with a colorless life, seem much more interesting.
On the other hand, homicidal Jake needs no coloring or fleshing out. He's a barely restrained (and lately, all too real) tempest of anger. He barely gets through life jumping from one conclusion to the next without the slightest hint of self-awareness. This would render most people harmless, even helpless. It only makes Jake a vicious animal who's never been taught any different. By the time he and Peter finally confront each other, Jake's a lost soul, and it's clear he's been beyond redemption since long before the tragedy that set off his killing.
Lost Dog represents a strong debut for author Bill Cameron. Here's hoping that we see more from this new talent in the near future. | May 2007
James R. Winter is a regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and a reviewer for Reflections in a Private Eye, the newsletter of the Private Eye Writers of America. His first novel, Northcoast Shakedown, came and went in 2005. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Winter now makes his home in suburban Cincinnati, where he works for an insurance company. His short fiction has appeared in Plots With Guns and ThugLit, as well as at The Thrilling Detective Web Site and Crime Scene Scotland. He enjoys hiking and travel and is a rabid rock-trivia buff. Send kielbasa, as he misses Cleveland.