J.T. Ellison’s latest Nashville-based novel, The Cold Room (Mira), finds her series homicide detective, Taylor Jackson, chasing an unusual serial killer. He starves his victims to death, violates their bodies and then poses them in elaborate re-creations of famous paintings. What bothers Jackson and her FBI profiler boyfriend, John Baldwin, is the scope of these slayings. It appears he has struck also in London and in Florence, Italy.
Ellison doesn’t hide this murderer from her readers, nor does she obscure the existence of a second serial killer, this one in Italy, called Il Macellaio (“The Butcher”). Our Nashville slayer is a graphic artist named Gavin. Nice guy. Drives a Prius. Admires the hell out of Il Macellaio. Also admires a famous photographer known simply as Tomasso. Gavin imitates the latter in his art work, and the former in his style of killing. So similar is his technique to that of his Italian counterpart, that Gavin’s crimes attract a British profiler to Nashville, one James “Memphis” Highsmythe. Memphis would be welcome on the investigation, if he didn’t have the almost pathological hots for Detective Jackson.
The Cold Room combines The Silence of the Lambs with The Wire. Jackson is a strong, capable investigator who, as we see in several subplots, is having to cope with institutional dysfunction. She’s been demoted from head of the Murder Squad and placed under Lieutenant Elm, a former New Orleans cop obsessed with administrative detail and with a hair-trigger temper. In the meantime, she and her former teammates are dealing with the aftermath of events in Ellison’s last novel, Judas Kiss (2009). She’s been reduced in rank from lieutenant and saddled with a new detective, Renn McKenzie, whom she suspects isn’t worthy of her trust.
Jackson is hard-nosed and a workaholic. Walking into a room, she is immediately in charge, her fellow officers snapping to, not really accepting her lowered status. I like her new partner, too. At first, McKenzie seems to be a stereotypically green upstart, but Ellison fleshes him out as he is exposed to two bizarre murders and a third attempt in less than five days. McKenzie evolves nicely as a result, and will probably make a welcome addition to this series.
The Cold Room character I found grating, however, was Memphis Highsmythe. He could have been an amazingly complex figure, someone dealing with his own grief. Instead, the New Scotland Yard detective came off as a self-centered jerk, unfortunately gifted with investigative talents rivaling those of Jackson and Baldwin. He was supposed to provide a complication for that couple, but in almost every scene, I wondered when Jackson was going to whip out the mace, the taser or the Louisville Slugger. Highsmythe is the kind of guy women find it easy to strike out at in return for their advances.
But if Highsmythe is the low point, then this novel’s mystery, and Taylor Jackson herself, represent its high points. The case of Gavin and his online friend, “Morte,” grows increasingly complex as this tale moves along. Jackson handles the investigation smoothly, sweating more over her relationship with Baldwin than her woes in Homicide. If anything, pursuing her quarry revitalizes the detective.
Author Ellison has done a fine job chasing serial killers. Now, if she’d just learn to throw a drink or two at annoying British detectives...