Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope (St. Martin’s Press, June 28, 2016) is told in first person present tense, something incredibly difficult for any author to do well. Kope manages to pull it off because Kope’s style — riddled with understated humor like Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard novels — humanizes characters with snappy dialogue.
Magnus “Steps” Craig, a “Tracker” for the FBI, is the viewpoint character. Unlike other search and rescue (SAR) trackers, Steps acquires the unique ability, after he nearly dies (or does die) in the woods at age eight, to see “shine.” Whether shine, manifested in various colors, is the residue of life-force aura left behind at a crime scene or a connection with the supernatural is left to the reader to decide. Steps has to fake doing a step by step search for clues to appear legitimate. Only Steps, his FBI partner Jimmy Donovan, and the FBI director know the truth. Should Steps tell Heather, his girlfriend and a crime reporter, his secret? Can he trust a reporter not to reveal the secret to the world?
Steps identifies the presence of a serial killer who abducts young women in Oregon and Washington State by his magenta and rust shine and by the sad face icon the killer draws near each victim. Mr. Sad Face, aka Mr. Magenta and Rust, leaves behind his invisible-to-all-but-Steps shine on everything he touches, including vehicles and houses and people. When Steps, Jimmy, and local Sheriff Walt Gant get too close, the killer’s shine appears at their homes and on their cars. Now the hunters have become the hunted.
Rich in characterization and dialogue, Collecting the Dead moves along at a break-neck pace. Steps’ self-deprecating wise-cracking helps offset the tension as deadlines for saving victims approach. Step’s gift is also a curse. Each time Jimmy and Steps uncover another corpse, Steps has to remind himself that “We save the ones we can.” Nevertheless, the sad faces of the dead haunt Steps’ life as much as his dreams.
I recommend Collecting the Dead to anyone who enjoys devouring a first-person fast-paced thriller with snappy dialogue and a slice of gallows humor thrown in for good measure.