“A By-the-Book Police Procedural”: A Review of Righteous Assassin, by Kevin G. Chapman
(A Mike Stoneman Thriller, KDP, 2018). ISBN: 9781723898730
One of the challenges and joys of genre writing is employing a plethora of tried-and-true tropes while bringing in something original and ultimately unexpected. This is hard enough to do with larger genres like the crime thriller, never mind drilling down into smaller loops of the spiral, into the police procedural and, in the case of Righteous Assassin, into the serial killer police procedural.
Within a few pages of Righteous Assassin, I felt deeply at home—not only because I teach about and have written numerous thrillers for the stage, page, screen, and Escape Rooms—but because Chapman was employing all of the genre’s prevalent tropes. His lead character, Mike Stoneman, is a hard-nosed Manhattan police detective who is single, impatient, and given to holding everyone around him to the high standards to which he holds himself. Consider his last name, Stoneman, which is like Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I used a similar device for my 1940s gumshoe Dirk Manzman. Mike’s partner, Jason, is a Black man who, although educated, experienced, and sharp, rose in the ranks to detective unusually fast, which Mike attributes to affirmative action. Having a new partner at the onset of a difficult case is another police procedural trope. There is a female FBI agent brought in to help with the case. Both she and her tech specialist are also tropes. Rounding out the cast of good guys, there’s a beautiful, shapely medical examiner and pushy crime reporter from the New York Times.
Before I proceed, I want to be clear—tropes are appropriate and largely expected in genre writing, and this is a sub-sub-genre, where we look forward to meeting specific characters and witnessing certain events. Remember: at the level of the sub-sub-genre, the story itself only has a limited number of iterations, which aligns with the real-life elements from which the genre takes its cues. These limited iterations allowed John Douglas and his FBI colleagues to develop the tenets of criminal profiling, giving rise to the book Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (which gave us Hannibal Lecter) and its film adaptation, Manhunter. There have been myriad TV procedurals, and the recent Netflix series Mindhunter, all of which use Douglas’s nonfiction books as their primary source material.
If you have studied serial killers, you know modus operandi and signatures define them. There are definite patterns they follow, and they are tracked using very specific methods. Chapman honors all of this, bringing it to page-turning life in Righteous Assassin.
So, how about the serial killer? Similar to real life cases and small and big screen stories, the serial killer here (as you probably guessed from the title) is a religious zealot convinced they are doing God’s good work. Because this is a vigilante-style serial killer, we’re in an even deeper loop in the genre spiral.
By this point, you might be reading this and asking, Why should I bother with this book?
Believe me: The reasons abound. First, Chapman’s voice is strong. Second, the book’s structure (bouncing back and forth between the killer’s online blog; their planning and committing of the crimes; and the police, FBI, and support staff working the case), the dialogue, and the painstaking work the good guys do to track down the killer’s identity are all fresh enough to add plenty of new to the familiar. Third, although the entry points of the various relationships feel familiar, because the characters are, where they ultimately go is not where veteran readers of this sub-sub-genre might expect.
The book also brings up several moral dilemmas because of the serial killer’s vigilante approach and their specific background and experiences. There are several dominant theories about why one becomes a serial killer, and Chapman’s take is refreshing in several aspects.
I also found the stories of the serial killer’s targets and their lovers, partners, and associates to be fearlessly honest—as are Stoneman’s reasons for not trusting his new partner. The overarching themes here are both topical and something we should all be discussing.
I have to note Chapman’s clear focus on research. The information technology aspects, as well as the depth of detail in how the good guys chase clues, interview, and rely on inspiration, are all spot on, giving the novel more than a little believability. I have put down plenty of serial killer novels over the years because all they delivered was surface-area tropes and severely damaged good guys in lieu of subtle backstories and at times conflicting moral actions.
Another reason to read this book is that it is the first in a series, which gives Chapman an opportunity to take the trope of Detective Mike Stoneman and develop him into the kind of nuanced, complex character that rises above genre while enhancing it and raising the bar for authors to come. Doyle did this with Sherlock Holmes, and F. Paul Wilson with Repairman Jack. After all, genres aren’t fixed in their constitution; they grow with new inspirations and, over time, what was once a single author’s new idea becomes another trope.
The other novels are Deadly Enterprise (Mike Stoneman #2), Lethal Voyage (Mike Stoneman #3), Fatal Infraction (Mike Stoneman #4) and, due out in December 2021, was Perilous Gambit (Mike Stonemen #5).
With five books in the series already, there’s no time better time than now to get to know Detective Mike Stoneman, his cast of supporting characters, and their talented creator.