Lavender (Obedience, 2008) takes on another puzzle-within-a-thriller, also set on a college campus.
Dr. Alex Shipley was a member of a special class of nine hand-picked students chosen for a night course taught by a former professor and convicted murderer, Dr. Richard Aldiss. Aldiss, who has made the study of the reclusive author Paul Fallows his life’s work, stands convicted of killing two graduate students. He’s set to teach the class from prison, under the watchful eyes of his guards. Naturally, it’s no ordinary class: Aldiss has sprinkled clues throughout the course, hoping to lead one student on a journey; in this case, it’s the beautiful Alex. She was spectacularly successful. Not only did she unlock Aldiss’ puzzle and help him win acquittal, but now Alex has returned to Jasper College to solve the death of a former classmate whose murder is a disturbing replica of the grad students’ deaths. When the remainder of the nine still living come together in a spooky mansion replete with a dean who likes to wear makeup, it is soon clear that there are strange things going bump in the night. With more bodies turning up, Alex finds that the killer’s true intention may be more personal than she might have ever imagined. The story is twisty and turny, with all kinds of side roads, but it’s mostly The Big Chill without the humor or sympathetic characters. The premise of the class, the police’s fawning reliance on a professor to solve their case, the mystery of exactly who Fallows might really be and the cast of weird characters come together in a story that often calls for the reader to suspend all rational thought. With action that veers from the original Aldiss class to the present and back, Lavender manages to maintain the novel’s taut, sinister atmosphere from the first page to the last. But in the end, the story is unsettling, unsatisfying and unbelievable.
Readers who loved Lavender’s first book will doubtless delight in this one, while those who did not will find his latest extremely tough reading.