Marcus Williams and Francis Ackerman Jr. both have a talent for hurting people. Marcus, a former New York City homicide detective, uses his abilities to protect others while Ackerman uses his gifts to inflict pain and suffering. He must embrace the monster within himself. When both men become unwilling pawns in a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of our government, Marcus finds himself in a deadly game of cat and mouse trapped between a twisted psychopath and a vigilante with seemingly unlimited resources. Aided by a rogue FBI agent and the vigilante’s beautiful daughter – a woman with whom he’s quickly falling in love – Marcus must expose the deadly political conspiracy and confront his past while hunting down one of the must cunning and ruthless killers in the world…
 

Francis Ackerman is America’s most terrifying serial killer. Brutal and cunning, he is ready to take his evil games to a new level. Special Agent Marcus Williams cannot shake Ackerman from his mind. Yet now he must focus on catching the Anarchist, a new killer who abducts women before burning them alive. The Anarchist will strike again soon. And Ackerman is still free. But even worse than this is a mysterious figure, unknown to the authorities – and his plans are more terrible than anyone imagines…

I confess to being quite the fan of a good meaty serial-killer thriller and the dark visceral explorations of the human mind, as evinced by writers such as Chris Carter, Jack Kerley and Richard Montanari, so I approached both of these with a palpable sense of excitement. Obviously, any debut writer within this genre cannot help being compared to the afore-mentioned luminaries, and of course the bar was set high early on by the wonderful Thomas Harris, so Ethan Cross finds himself treading in some pretty weighty footsteps with mixed success.

Embarking on ‘The Shepherd’ my response was quite positive, with an initially intriguing plot revolving around a disgraced ex-cop, Marcus Williams, whose path crosses that of serial killer Francis Ackerman Jr, and charts the mind games that arise between them. Marcus finds himself manipulated and tested, not only by Ackerman, but by the head of the local law enforcement, and it quickly becomes evident that all is not as it seems in this small town, as Marcus finds himself torn between two masters, so to speak, with an ever increasing body count. I don’t know if it’s due to the sheer amount of crime that I read, but I was disappointed by how seemingly obvious the plot twists were signposted throughout, and unfortunately the great reveal toward the end of the book, setting the scene for the next in the series, came as no great surprise. I was incredibly suspicious from the outset as characters were bumped off willy-nilly that I thought had been fleshed out too much to merely perish by the wayside, so maybe this is why the ending was a bit of a damp squib for me personally. What I would say though in defence of this book is that the characterisation of Ackerman was incredibly well-realised and achieved the perfect balance between a certain charismatic charm in conflict with his dark impulses, ingrained in him from childhood from having been manipulated and nurtured as a killer by his father. In fact, I was quite disturbed how much I took to him, finding at times that my empathy was aroused, due to the slow unveiling of his background and the inherent charm and intelligence he displays throughout both books. Indeed, to be fair, the characterisation was the strength of this book and as we discover who survives to fight another day, I felt that there was great promise shown for the next book, despite my minor quibbles with the plot flaws, and I was interested to see how these characters would be further developed.

 In the follow up ‘The Prophet’ the characters of Marcus and Ackerman are front and centre as, in a Starling/Lector symbiosis, Ackerman inveigles himself into the capturing of another serial killer, ‘The Anarchist’, manipulating Marcus’ course of actions and tightening the screws on their relationship. Early alarm bells sounded for me again that all was not as it appeared, and that there was definitely another connection between the two which sadly was again a bit too obvious. Generally, I found ‘The Prophet’ the weaker of the two books for a few reasons, not least because there was such a concentration on the characters of Marcus and Ackerman that the other protagonists seemed almost superflous and the female characters in particular were merely plot devices and lacked definition. The more rounded characterisation evident in ‘The Shepherd’ was not built upon, as the emphasis seemed to shift solely to Marcus and Ackerman, to the detriment of others. I also felt that the book was in need of closer editing, as stretching beyond 500 pages, defied the generally held theory that crime thrillers are much more effective in a shorter pagination, and my attention was waning by the end. Some writers can achieve a consistency over a longer stretch (I would cite the Scandinavian genre) but for a book of this nature and to keep the ‘shock’ value I think the adage ‘less is more’ definitely applies. Throughout the second book there were sections that did lend themselves to being cut I felt, and there was also a greater evidence of unnecessary detail that was distracting and didn’t really add anything to the central plot. The whole book had a very cinematic feel about it and would translate easily to film, which is all well and good in the clamour for movie rights, but not at the expense of Cross’ firm grasp of characterisation in evidence in ‘The Shepherd’ but sadly not so evident in this second instalment.

 So to sum up, ‘The Shepherd’ was I felt a much more compelling read overall than ‘The Prophet’ which maybe found itself subject to the well known publishing curse of the difficult second book and could have been more tightly edited, so cannot attribute any blame to Cross himself for this. Despite my concerns I would read another in a series and would certainly recommend ‘The Shepherd’ for fans of a good visceral serial killer thriller, if just for the wholly entrancing character of Francis Ackerman Jr…

 Visit the author’s website here: http://www.ethancross.com/

 (I bought ‘The Shepherd’ as a Kindle e-book and thanks to Random House for the ARC of ‘The Prophet’)

 

 

 

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