In Smith’s debut, a children’s game turns into a deadly chase as a compromised mother must uncover old sins to save her daughter’s life.
Grace Descanso has a past. A recovering alcoholic and former pediatric heart surgeon, Descanso has only recently gotten back into the good graces of the San Diego police force, for which she now works as a forensic biologist, when tragedy strikes. On a rare day off, when the struggling single mother should be preparing for Halloween with her beloved four-year-old Katie, she is called into a meth-lab case. There’s tons of evidence for her to process, but things quickly worsen when a seeming onlooker kills two policemen. Descanso manages to shoot the killer, but not before he whispers an intriguing clue: “He’s coming for you,” he says, referring to “the Spikeman.” That shooting—and the fact that the dead killer was the son of a senator—throws Descanso back under suspicion and on suspension. But the welcome time off with her daughter, during which they can play Katie’s favorite treasure-hunt game, the “timer game” of the title, quickly turns sour. An unnamed enemy who seems to know Descanso well grabs her daughter and leaves a trail of sadistic rhyming clues, all based on the game. Desperate to save Katie, Descanso scrambles to uncover a path that leads to her own past and that of her former mentor, a bioresearch genius, eliciting help from various friends and her estranged lover Mac along the way. The novel builds suspense, but both the characters’ motives and much of the bioresearch elements stretch credibility. The lack of support for Descanso from fellow cops is equally far-fetched. Would they really believe she planted a bloody, eviscerated doll at her own daughter’s party?
The artificial premise and horror-movie clues keep things moving, but by the bloody, booming climax, there’s little reason to care.