Thursday, June 18, 2009

Twisted, Edgy, Scary, Irresistible: The Crime Novels of Dave Zeltserman

[I provided this overview for the Caledonian-Record, but it hasn't reached print yet, and I want to share it before Zeltserman arrives here for his June 25 event. -- Beth]

Hardly anyone in New England has heard of crime author Dave Zeltserman, which is as much a mystery as his books: Author of four published and highly recommended "dark" crime novels, Zeltserman lives just outside Boston in Needham, Mass., and with his first film option signed and six (yes, six!) more books under contract for 2009 and 2010, he's hot in the crime fiction scene.

But his first few books either had small press runs or were released first in Britain, far from the American news media. As a result, American reviews won't explode with news of this talent until September of this year.

Well ahead of that time, Zeltserman is scheduled to visit the Northeast Kingdom this summer. So it's a good moment to read his most available title, "Small Crimes" (Serpent's Tail, 2008).

Set in the small fictional town of Bradley, Vermont, "in a valley on the edge of the Green Mountains," "Small Crimes" hints at what drug addiction can do to a community; it's a grim and explosive thriller featuring a "cop" gone bad -- one small crime at a time. When Joe Denton gets out of prison early, his ability to rationalize each bad decision makes him a disaster in his community. Even his estranged wife and children fall prey to his small-minded lurch into danger and crime. Zeltserman's consummate skill in painting the irrational compulsion of evil makes this fiction intensely believable, to the point of making a reader wonder what the day's "police news" in any local paper might hide.

Zeltserman's work has already been compared with James Ellroy, a writer of classic noir (dark) fiction, and with other classics of the genre by James M. Cain ("The Postman Rings Twice"). In "Bad Thoughts," Zeltserman probes the nastiness of the criminal mind in a way that recalls Jeffrey Deaver's series featuring Lincoln Rhyme (which includes the film "The Bone Collector").

In "Bad Thoughts" the action opens inside a nightmare that Bill Shannon, a cop in Cambridge, Mass., is having -- one in which he's bring forced to pick up a knife and kill someone. That's disturbing enough. But the horror doubles when Shannon realizes that women are being killed in exactly this way, while he endures his dreadful dreams. They date back to the death of his mother when he was just 13 years old. Also haunting him are blackouts, perhaps linked to his own drinking, that plague his adult life. They cut in around the same time each year, the anniversary of his mother's death. Since Shannon doesn't know what he's done during his time away from himself, and his wife and best friend fail to figure it out either, the creepy suspicion among all of them is that Shannon may be the killer. Even of his mother.

It doesn't help that Shannon's therapist seems to be falling into the circle of death. And since Shannon and his fugue states are clearly getting worse, his wife Susie has about had it. Half the time she wishes he were dead; walking out of the marriage is looking attractive for her:
She stood frozen, staring down at him. An angry, painful sob convulsed through her body. 'Weren't you supposed to be all cured? Isn't that what your therapist has been telling you?' she asked, her face turning a hard white. When Shannon remained mute in response, she exploded, 'Answer me! Are you even in there?'

'Where else would I be?' he said after a while.

She opened her mouth, closed it, and fled to the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. She stood frozen in front of the mirror and then started to sob uncontrollably.

Soon isolation, terror, and a sense of crumbling from the inside beset Shannon, not a great situation from which to try to save his own life and those around him. Zeltserman combines a gritty police procedural with a carefully crafted state of horror, and a sense that the sociopathic mind of a truly dangerous criminal is creeping into each scene, each character, each weighing of risk and terror.

Zetserman's newest work, "Pariah," has already made waves in England and will be available in America in October. At the same time, his new "Bad Karma" will be published, moving away from New England settings.

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of this novelist is the fact that in person, in spite of his dark imagination, he's a nice guy, married, happy, and excited to have his work finally making a splash. After years of hard work and a passion for crime fiction, Dave Zeltserman is getting a reward. Thank goodness, it's a far different one from what usually happens to the characters in his novels.

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