The Stone Monkey
by Jeffery Deaver
Published by Simon & Schuster
432 pages, 2002
Buy it online
The Tao of Rhyme
Reviewed by Anthony Rainone
Lincoln Rhyme once headed the Central Investigation and Resource Division, the forensics arm of the New York Police Department. But while walking a crime-scene grid during the course of one particularly grisly inquiry, an oak beam fell on him, rendering him a quadriplegic for life. It seemed that Rhyme's brilliant career as a criminologist was at an end, until the NYPD brought him out of retirement in an advisory capacity, in Jeffery Deaver's The Bone Collector (1997). Now he's back on the job in a fourth novel, The Stone Monkey, chasing a cold-blooded killer and human smuggler with the help of his protégée/lover, Officer Amelia Sachs.
As the story opens, Rhyme has been called in by the FBI and immigration officials to track down a New York City-bound cargo ship, the Fuzhou Dragon. It's filled with illegal immigrants from China and under the command of a notorious "snakehead" (refugee smuggler), multimillionaire Kwan Ang, better known as "the Ghost." Rhyme has deduced the ship's arrival day and location off Long Island, but plans to intercept it go horrifyingly awry. Rhyme misjudges the Ghost's penchant for spilling blood, and as a result, many innocents are killed in an explosion on the vessel, while the Ghost escapes. The case then becomes personal for Rhyme:
Lincoln Rhyme was furious with himself. He knew how dangerous the Ghost was; he should have anticipated this deadly turn. He closed his eyes momentarily and adjusted the burden somewhere in his soul. Give up the dead, he often told himself. But he couldn't quite give them up, not these poor people. He knew he couldn't abandon the case. The hunter within him had to find this man and bring him to justice.
The action shifts to Manhattan's Chinatown, with its tongs (cultural aid organizations of varying honesty) and underground gambling dens. Deaver is a thorough researcher and sharp observer, and his portrayal of this richly ethnic quarter -- full of bustling hordes, vegetable and fish stalls, restaurants and small tea shops that double as herbalists -- gets the details right. (It's only a bit strange, and not distracting from the storyline, to read references to the World Trade Center area -- an indication that Monkey was written pre-September 11.) But these atmospherics are all in the service of Deaver's plot. It seems that two immigrant families who managed to flee the sinking Fuzhou Dragon, the Wus and the Changs, have sought refuge in Chinatown. Knowing that the Ghost will kill them as witnesses to his perfidy, these families turn for help to the corrupt East Broadway Fujianese Society, and end up hiding in rundown apartments in Chinatown and Brooklyn. By juxtaposing Rhyme and Sachs' desperate pursuit of both the immigrants and the Ghost against the Ghost's separate hunt for the Wus and Changs, Deaver infuses his tale with adrenaline.
As always, Rhyme runs his investigation from the confines of his large Gothic townhouse on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which he purchased with the settlement money from his accident. Able nowadays to move only his shoulders, neck, head and, oddly enough, his left ring finger, Rhyme spends most of his time either lying in his customized Hill-Rom Flexicair bed or getting around in a computerized Storm Arrow wheelchair. A forensics lab has been set up in Rhyme's residence -- a far-fetched notion, but one that is gradually accepted. All crime scene trace evidence is brought to the townhouse and analyzed. Rhyme's scientific acumen is second to none, but it's his innate ability to abstractly coax answers from the assemblage of data that makes him unique. Rhyme uses a method of listing all the factual details accumulated in a case on large, white poster boards, which he tapes to his wall and constantly scrutinizes. Often, a single fact will suddenly reveal great significance:
He gazed at these items intently, as if imploring the inanimate evidence assembled before him to come to life, give up whatever secrets it might hold and guide them to the killer and the unfortunate prey that he was hunting.
Although Lincoln Rhyme is the dominating force in this series, he's surrounded by a dedicated coterie of crime busters, including FBI agent Fred Dellray (part Shaft, part Superfly), NYPD Lieutenant Lon Sellitto (street-weary but still diligent) and crime lab analyst Mel Cooper, Rhyme's forensics sidekick. Most prominent of the bunch, however, is Amelia Sachs, who provides these novels with physical action and emotionality on a level that Rhyme cannot. Rhyme was first attracted to her when he realized that Sachs' forensics instincts worked the same way his did. She could get inside the mind of a killer, as she demonstrates in this passage from The Stone Monkey:
"You're the Ghost, now," Rhyme reminded her in a lulling voice. ... "What's in your mind?"
Sachs is a redheaded former model turned street cop (her father was with the police, too), and there is nothing feminine about her except her looks. That might be a reflection of Deaver's inability to depict women, or maybe it's just that Sachs has had to adjust to being female in a macho environment. She is gutsy and a daredevil, given to driving at extreme speeds, and her chewed-down fingernails attest to the existence of inner demons. Her character succeeds because Deaver gives her a vulnerable side -- she cares about crime victims to the point of often putting her own life in danger (as she does in this book's tense deep-sea-diving sequence, involving Sachs and the submerged Fuzhou Dragon). Sachs also loves Rhyme, which enlarges the story. The case matters, but their commitment to each other reverberates around the edges of whatever they do.
Stealing some of the limelight from both Rhyme and Sachs in The Stone Monkey is Li Kangmei. Nicknamed Sonny by his friends, after the dangerous character in The Godfather, Li is a detective with the Liu Guoyuan Public Security Bureau back in China. After the Ghost killed several people in Li's village, the detective went undercover as an illegal and stowed away on the Fuzhou Dragon, intending to arrest the Ghost, only to fight for survival when the smuggling ship was sabotaged. Li is an opinionated but likable man. Through a series of events, he makes his way to Rhyme's townhouse and convinces the criminologist to include him in the investigation, rather than return him to China. "You got keep me," Li insists in his broken English. "I can help. I know how Ghost think. We from same world, him and me. I in gang when boy, like him. And spent lots time as undercover officer, working docks in Fuzhou."
Li is at first a bother to Rhyme and Sachs -- the yin to their yang. Rhyme is obsessive about collecting fibers and prints from uncorrupted crime scenes. He has fired technicians for so much as sneezing during evidence collection. Li eschews this kind of investigation. Yet he acquires information as useful and accurate as Rhyme's simply by observing and using his own system of deduction. Gradually, the curt Rhyme comes to accept and like this strange little cop from China, who deferentially calls the criminologist "Loaban" (boss).
More importantly, Li helps Rhyme to accept his physical limitations. Over glasses of scotch one night, Rhyme mentions that he's seriously considering undergoing a dangerous but potentially promising surgical procedure, hoping to regain some movement. Sachs is against it, but Rhyme wants "to be able to close his hand around the tumbler. ... To scratch his head." In a moment of soul baring, he tells Li, "I want to walk again." But Li says the operation would be a mistake: "Fate make you this way, Loaban. And make you this way for purpose. Maybe you best detective you can be because of what happen. Your life balanced now, I'm saying."
Li may be peculiar, but he is still an outstanding detective -- which he proves by finding the Ghost before Rhyme and Sachs can. Like those two, Li also has great dimensionality and vulnerability. (His father, for instance, hates him for not joining the Communist Party or having a son of his own.) This is one of Deaver's great gifts: he creates characters that the reader cares deeply about. The reader is uplifted and saddened simultaneously with Li's successes and tragedies.
Even the Ghost is shown to have a torturous psychological past -- his parents were killed by communists when the Ghost was a boy, leaving young Kwan Ang to live alone on the streets of his Chinese village. Over time, his demons were never exorcised; instead, they festered and became homicidal. While Deaver shows the Ghost to be a remorseless killer, even he has his vulnerability. Just before attempting to kill the Wus, the Ghost hesitates briefly:
He felt a moment's fear, as he often did at times like this, just before going into battle. ... But he reminded himself that fear was part of humanity and it was the humble who succeeded in this world. He thought of one of his favorite passages from the Tao.Yield and you need not break
The Ghost is driven by his passions. He's the antithesis of the logical Rhyme and the observant Li. His ruthless pursuit of the hiding Wus and Changs only feeds his appetite for blood. Another man would have cut his losses and fled before Rhyme closed in. Yet the Ghost -- highly intelligent, with a possible spy inside Rhyme and Sachs' ranks -- manages to fool everyone. In the end, his corrupt political connections become a daunting obstacle for the forensic detective and his earnest associates.
Like all Jeffery Deaver novels, The Stone Monkey delivers twists from its beginning pages all the way through to its final scene. The cat-and-mouse games played by the Ghost are clever. The violence done to those who betray the Ghost is chilling. Deaver is known to devote several months to outlining his plots, and the effort pays off here, though several events in The Stone Monkey are shaky in terms of believability. Particularly dubious is the scene in which a member of the Chang family is able to purchase a gun on the streets, despite his having been in the United States for only a matter of hours. And when the Changs turn the tables to pursue the Ghost, they are able to find him too easily.
Still, Deaver's knowledge and use of forensics is impeccable, and his decision to periodically shift scenes within the environs of the various boroughs of New York keeps the action fresh, fast-paced and flowing. Deaver stays one step ahead of the reader, and his continual ratcheting the stakes higher intensifies the enjoyment of reading these books. | March 2002