A suspenseful first novel from biotechnologist and nonfiction author Andrews (Body Bazaar, 2001, etc.) offers within a workmanlike plot an insiders’ look into the armed-services pathology lab.
A serial killer is on the loose, strangling and raping women and then tattooing their breasts, until the death of one high-profile victim, and friend of President Bradley Cotter himself, drives the government into action. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) handles forensics work for the military, and its arrogant new head, Colonel Jack Wiatt, assigns geneticist Dr. Alex Blake to head the “Tattoo Killer” team. Thirty-something, “beguiling” but not intellectual, the child of a Vietnam vet killed in action, Alex is a dedicated sequencer of DNA, but resentful of being forced to take on the strangler case. Alex is at loose ends after struggling through an unraveled relationship, and fed up with the sexism that seems to be endemic to her line of work. But she forges on and employs her detective powers, discovering, for instance, that the killer used a cherry-flavored condom; more difficult is demonstrating to Wiatt that she is a team player. In fact, Alex spends much of her time testifying in front of a congressional committee defending the beleaguered AFIP, where she meets the handsome bachelor congressman from Texas, David Thorne, himself on the rebound from his failed relationship with an older, divorced senator. On a hunch, Alex suggests that the armed-forces genetic pool be tested against a specimen from the killer, and the result points to Admiral Kenneth Mason, who turns out to have the same creepy tattoo on his breast. But while the DNA isn’t exact, it is overlapping—meaning a relative might be involved. Andrews attempts to bring out the human story behind Alex’s work—developing her friendship with colleague Barbara and her deaf teenaged daughter, Lana—though the author is more skillful at handling the political and technical aspects of her story, such as backroom wheeling-and-dealing in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Dedicated readers may relish exploring this unusual branch of the military, but not necessarily the impersonal story in which it’s couched.