Sometimes a book just hits and let me tell you, Greg Iles’ 2006 novel, True Evil, freakin’ hit! I devoured that 637-page book after starting it only yesterday afternoon. I was surprised how much he was able to wring out of a serial killer story that normally would be 350 pages, give or take, and he did so without it seeming overly long. I wouldn’t chop down this book much at all. I think everything worked from a length-perspective.
Believe it or not, even though I own a few of his books, this marks the first time I’ve read an Iles book, and it did not disappoint, and I think the best compliment I can give an author is that I’m eager to read more of his work now!
This is just a clever book, and maybe I’m in the high after finishing it, but dare I say, it’s one of the more clever serial killer books I can recall reading? And I’m particularly impressed with how well it holds up 16 years after the fact. After all, in the realm of crime books, some can feel outdated after a certain point, but this one? It could have been written in 2022 and as far as I can tell, it wouldn’t be out of place. Even the medical parts seem fresh. I’m a layman as it concerns much of the medical jargon and issues at stake in the book, so maybe someone smarter than me would dispute my aforementioned sentence, but it seems good to me!
The reason this book is clever is because a divorce attorney and a psychotic doctor have teamed up to perfect the perfect murder. Wealthy spouses who would rather kill their significant other rather than go through a messy and costly divorce come to the divorce lawyer. Then, the psychotic doctor kills them, and they are killing people (19 in total over fiver years) not just in an undetectable way, but in such a way (terminal illness, typically cancer) that nobody even suspects that there has been foul play. In other words, the psychotic doctor’s life’s work is to perfect a bioweapon wherein you inject the enemy with a cancer-causing virus, and wipe them out. To guard against it coming back around on you, you immunize your own population. The psychotic doctor, Dr. Tarver, thinks this will be worth millions and millions of dollars in government contracts in preparation for the next Cold War, this time against the Chinese (the book feels prescient in that way, too!). Dr. Tarver has many a rant about how weak America has become and how much more willing the Chinese are to dispense with life if it means beating us. As for the divorce lawyer, he doesn’t have high and mighty ideas about America or the Chinese, or science, as Dr. Tarver does; he just a.) wants money and b.) wants to stick it to his old man, who is a big time lawyer and never thought he was worth the suit he was in.
Unfortunately for this duo who think they have concocted the perfect crime, and for all intents and purposes, they have for five years and through 19 murders, FBI agent and hostage negotiator, Alex Morse, comes along, and is able to hear her dying sister’s admission that her husband, Bill, is a monster. That leads Alex to believe Grace, who died of some brain embolism, to have been murdered. Which leads her to Dr. Chris Shepard, who she fears is the next victim at the hands of his wife. Chris is, rightly in some respects, incredulous.
In fact, the entire FBI is also incredulous and essentially tries to sideline Alex. Alex’s father was killed in a robbery, her mother is dying of ovarian cancer, and her sister had the “brain embolism,” so everyone thinks she’s just having an emotional breakdown. But no, she’s on the case!
Because of that denial, it is so damn satisfying as a reader when Chris believes her, when the fellow private detectives and contacts at the FBI she’s leaning on for help believe her, and when the FBI overall believes her. I was so elated for Alex. Yes, I laughed with glee (that’s my reaction when I’m excited about something happening in books/movies/TV!).
That’s the thing. Iles made me care about Alex and Chris, and all the ancillary characters, both good and bad ones, around them. And let me tell you, Dr. Tarver is terrifying! As if it’s not bad enough that he’s killing people surreptitiously (and mind you, it takes months and months for these people to die of a awful terminal illness) and that he has zero remorse about it — in perhaps the most terrifying scene in the novel, and any novel I’ve read in quite some time, Dr. Tarver uses gas to knock out Chris, his adopted son, and Alex’s “uncle” who is a private detective, and injects Shepard with the cancer-causing virus through his anus while he’s knocked out … goodness — , but Dr. Tarver is also into snakes, and using snakes to scare people and hurt people and kill people. Snakes! I hate snakes. They give me the heebie-jeebies, so yeah, I would say Dr. Tarver was a great villain in this story. I would argue perhaps too powerful and five-steps-ahead of everyone, but for the most part, it worked.
The funniest thing, and perhaps a minor criticism I have, is that the only reason Dr. Tarver ends up being killed in the end instead of escaping away on a helicopter (despite Alex being present, along with the private detective uncle, and an FBI SWAT team) is because of … Jamie, the 10-year-old nephew of Alex. He was Dr. Tarver’s hostage, and somehow, while in the helicopter, he dumped the sack holding the venomous snake onto Dr. Tarver’s head, leading to a bite and Dr. Tarver falling out of the helicopter. I’m not sure if that’s a minor criticism with the kid being something of a deus ex machina, or if it’s brilliant in that a.) this genius-level psycho was brought down by a 10-year-old, and b.) that he was brought down by his beloved snakes. I also was surprised with how much Iles talked up Alex being this superstar hostage negotiator for the FBI that we didn’t get a scenario where that came into play. But also, there was no talking to a psycho like Dr. Tarver, as Iles showed.
Dr. Tarver also makes a critical error I didn’t understand: Mid-way through the book, he attacks Alex and tries to kill her until she’s able to stab him with her keys and a neighbor with a shotgun scares him off. Why did he try to attack and kill Alex?! At that point in the story, nobody really believed her. By trying to kill her, he substantiates that something is nefarious in the realm of what she’s investigating! It seemed like an ultimately fatal error on his part.
I can’t rave enough about this book, to be honest, because I’m shocked that a book that’s more than 600 pages didn’t remotely feel like it. That I actually cared about all of these characters. That I was fascinated with how Alex tried to convince them of her convictions and case. That I even “enjoyed,” as far as that goes, getting into the mind of a serial killer like Dr. Tarver. And just as importantly, as I mentioned, the whole premise is pretty brilliant with the cancer-causing virus murder conspiracy. The medical science parts of this are fascinating, and importantly, don’t feel like exposition as some books do with information like that. It feels organic, and weaved brilliantly into the story by Iles. Additionally, as I’ve mentioned about prior books, I’m also a sucker for a different setting for a book, and this one is set in Mississippi, and there is even some interesting ruminations about the state, how it falls behind, and how its residents are left behind, that I found a welcome addition to the book for further context to everything going on (and that’s part of what made Chris so likable as a character!).
I’m also shocked by how much murder there was in this book. I feel like sometimes, authors shy away from killing too many of the characters, but like, Iles kills a lot of characters in this one, both good ones and bad ones. I’m just happy Alex, Chris, and Jamie survived. Alex was vindicated, Chris gets a new chance at happiness, and Jamie doesn’t have to live under the tyranny of a dad who orchestrated the murder of his mother.
If you’re like me and have never read an Iles book, I would highly recommend starting with True Evil. I was blown away!