I’ve been meaning for the longest time to write up a post about criminally unknown (in the US at least) thriller author Jack Kerley, but something always seemed to get in the way. So, when Ron and the gang at Shotgun Honey asked if I was interested in doing a post for their new Wednesday feature I figured I should take that as a sign to finally get it in gear.
Jack Kerley, also billed as J.A. Kerley, writes a series set in Mobile, Alabama featuring Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus. The first three books in the series (The Hundredth Man, The Death Collectors, and A Garden of Vipers) were published in the US to overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, they received starred reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Booklist, yet for some reason the series never really gained a toe-hold with American readers.
Readers in the UK and Australia were more welcoming and the series, which recently saw the publication of its eighth entry (Her Last Scream), is a bestseller in those countries. It’s also been translated into ten languages and published in over twenty countries, with The Death Collectors even being voted “Best Foreign Mystery of the Decade” in Japan.
Detectives Carson Ryder and Harry Nautilus are the sum total of the Mobile Police Department’s Psychopathological and Sociopathological Investigative Team (PSIT), which is sarcastically referred to as “Piss-it” by other members of the force. Ryder is the younger of the two, and much of the team’s chemistry comes from the interplay between his tendencies to be impulsive versus the older, more experienced Nautilus’s reflective, even-keeled approach to both policing and life in general. Though they are first and foremost regular detectives on the force, they are specifically the “go to” duo when a case comes along which demonstrates extreme violence, ritualistic aspects, or appears to be part of a pattern of crimes.
One of the things that makes the team so successful, but which Carson has gone to great lengths – including changing his name and purging family records – to hide from the world, is the fact Carson’s brother is himself a notorious, imprisoned serial killer from whom Carson is able to gain insight about the cases he works. Yes, immediately and unavoidably Hannibal Lecter springs to mind. And while there are inarguably some surface similarities, Kerley has done well to distinguish Carson’s brother, Jeremy Ridgecliff, from Thomas Harris’s well-known character. Most notably, the fact the two are brothers adds a unique nuance to the give and take between them; this isn’t merely a random investigator sterilely picking the brain of a caged monster. They share family, blood, and secrets.
Kerley’s descriptions of Mobile, Alabama are atmospheric and evocative, and he makes full use of both the beautiful and occasionally unforgiving geography that is the Gulf Coast region of the US. Hot, muggy, and prone to spit out massive storms at a moment’s notice, the mercurial weather is as much a character in the books as the detectives themselves. As far as the characters go, from the leads to the bit players they are all well-drawn and believable, with both the cops and killers at times demonstrating appropriately macabre senses of humor. And while the crime scenes are quite descriptive and some may be a bit too grisly for the more faint of heart, it is worth noting that Kerley’s criminals are equal opportunity offenders. The victims throughout the series don’t read strictly like a list of contestants in a Miss America pageant, but actually reflect a cross-section of the population. In short, the series is wonderfully balanced, hits all the right notes, and is one you should be reading if you’re not already.
The complete Carson Ryder / Harry Nautilus series is:
The Hundredth Man
The Death Collectors
A Garden of Vipers (titled Broken Souls in the UK)
In the Blood
Little Girls Lost
Her Last Scream
Kindle versions of some of the books, including the first in the series, are available on Amazon, and hard copies of all the books in the series can be ordered in the US though the outstanding indie bookstore Murder by the Book.