Katzenbach’s finest hour is the tale of a widowed New York psychotherapist roused from the cocoon of his habitual rounds by an anonymous letter—a letter threatening him with a fate worse than death.
The plot unfolded by Dr. Frederick Starks’s nemesis, who calls himself Rumplestiltskin, is startlingly simple. In revenge for Ricky’s neglect of one unnamed patient of the hundreds he’s treated, Mr. Skin is going to “destroy”—maybe kill, maybe ruin, maybe damage irreparably—one of his dozens of relatives in exactly two weeks, unless Ricky either identifies his malign correspondent or kills himself in the meantime. Just to make things more fun, Rumplestiltskin throws out a few hints to his identity and offers to answer three yes-or-no questions about himself over the allotted time (the detail that most decisively marks the ensuing thrills as synthetic, however intense). Persuaded of his adversary’s bona fides by a nasty incident involving a nephew’s daughter, Ricky sets to work figuring out who he is, but he’s taunted and terrified at every turn by repeated run-ins with two employees of his nemesis, a lawyer with the magical name of Merlin and a woman calling herself Virgil, after Dante’s guide to Hell. Meanwhile, Rumplestiltskin has lost no time isolating Ricky from the rest of the world by driving one of his current patients to suicide, arranging to have charges of sexual abuse brought against him, canceling his credit cards, seizing his financial assets, stealthily invading his apartment, and finally driving him out of the city. Facing an impossible deadline in a paranoid frenzy, Ricky takes the only way out he can imagine, setting the stage for an equally breathtaking, though rather more predictable, second act.
Hokey, gimmicky, and flatly unbelievable—but even readers immune to the erratic charms of Katzenbach’s earlier thrillers (Hart’s War, 2000, etc.) will find themselves powerless to stop after page ten.