A pathology resident investigates a series of murders tied to a killer she fought off years earlier in Schwalbe’s (Toro!, 2015) sequel thriller.
Since she survived a near-death encounter with a serial murderer known as “Toro,” Dr. Allie Parsons has received occasional notes from someone claiming to be him. The latest anonymous message, however, is unusual; it’s written in a child’s scrawl and, among other things, warns Allie that Toro “will kill us all!” Around the same time, Cordelia Mutare, a local woman, kills Herman Warner in self-defense and claims that he’d said that Toro had ordered him to murder her. Allie speaks with Cordelia, who implies that they share a link with Toro’s victims; she further references “Druden,” a name from the anonymous note. That’s all that Allie gets before cops push her away from the case, as Cordelia’s attorney is Allie’s fiance, Duncan Maxwell. On her own initiative, Allie learns of two unsolved murders that Herman may have committed as part of a “kill list.” And there’s a chance that she; her teenage daughter, Chrystal; or her old pal Andrew are on that list, as well. Schwalbe’s novel is packed with details, as in Allie’s back story: she’s a former stripper and drug addict with a somewhat mysterious background, and very little is known about her father. Various suspicious characters help to boost the tension; for example, Lady Dana Donahue, the CEO of genetic-research company Minos Corporation, professes to know Allie’s dad. Other players provide effective comic relief, such as Allie’s boss at the morgue, Dr. Bartles, who seems more invested in a true-crime TV series that he hosts. The dialogue, however, is sometimes stilted, as when an agitated Chrystal tells her mom, “Please listen to me. I implore you.” The madcap final act includes a plot twist that inches the thriller toward an entirely different genre while also providing a satisfying conclusion.
An entertainingly hectic tale featuring an eccentric protagonist.
A stripper becomes a med student after suffering a near-fatal attack by the titular Toro, but the past has an odd way of resurfacing.
As a single mother to two, Allie Parsons pays the bills by stripping and blows off steam by taking home handsome strangers. Unfortunately, one of those blue-eyed strangers turns out to be Toro, a serial killer who gouges out Allie’s left eye before she accidentally fatally shoots her son and scares Toro off. Allie’s mother, Bea, who has never approved of her daughter’s lifestyle, attempts to seize custody of Allie’s daughter as soon as she’s out of the hospital. However, Allie rallies after the attack and retains custody of her daughter; eventually, Allie attains a medical degree and a job in the coroner’s office. She thinks Toro has been captured and killed when her supervisor, Dr. Leopold Mann, explains that he worked on the case and successfully identified the body, but then she receives a strange note on her car windshield that uncomfortably reminds her of her attacker. Is Toro still on the loose? More importantly, is the past ever really buried or only paused? Although Schwalbe’s prose has a fair number of clichés—“Despite being bone-tired, she couldn’t sleep”—the plotting is unusual, the character relationships atypical. While the novel lacks the gravitas and nuanced character studies of, say, a James Ellroy novel, the gritty situations and unusual attention to medical details (Schwalbe is a real-life anesthesiologist) help distinguish it from run-of-the-mill thrillers. Allie is a complex woman somewhat hampered by the on-the-nose prose she’s wrapped in: “Allie, listen to me. I’ve watched you since you were old enough to toddle around the nursery. You’re one of the most intelligent and kindest people I’ve ever seen. Your mother told me you scored in the genius range on those IQ tests.” Still, her unusual life story and responses to challenging situations make her a noteworthy, fully fleshed-out heroine who, despite the difficulties, manages to pull off some hard-earned triumphs.
Shines a light on criminal and bureaucratic complexities in an unusual, poignant narrative that would benefit from a more polished style.