Author: Greg Iles
The serial killers in Greg Iles’s books keep getting smarter. In the last few books I’ve read by him, I’ve followed artist serial killers stumping the FBI with body disposal, doctors who develop cancer in an unsuspecting victim’s body, and a coordinated ring of vengeful molest victims. Nobody has been a smart as the killer in Mortal Fear. How smart is he?
The killer in Mortal Fear is your garden variety world renowned brain surgeon. In addition, he’s also a master computer hacker/programmer, who has used his combined knowledge to develop 3D mapping programs of the human brain. As with most computer experts and brain surgeons, he’s also got the physique of an Olympic athlete or Greek god, because he really enjoys swimming. Throughout the book the killer also shows an expert knowledge of FBI profiling techniques, phone switchboard operations, and finding his way around places he’s never been before.
End of spoilers
The main mystery of Mortal Fear is established in the first two chapters. There’s a person or persons who are killing users of the EROS group. EROS is an early attempt at cashing in at horny wealthy people on the internet, where people pay for anonymity so they can get online and type dirty things to each other. It’s so good, they’re even allowing photos to be shared now. (I love reading/watching stories from the earlier days of the internet, and while I’m laughing at the portrayal I honestly think the naiveté of the potential is charming to read today.) Despite only about seven people in the world knowing who all have accounts on EROS, somebody is killing women from EROS in various horrifying ways.
Harper Cole is a sysop for EROS. Along with his friend Miles Turner, Harper is a tech guy/administrator for the website. Based on tracking who is still paying and who’s not using the service Harper alerts the FBI to a potential serial killer situation. The first half of the book is Harper, the FBI, and others trying to figure out who the killer is. His friend Miles is a definite suspect. In addition to that workplace drama, Harper also has some issues at home. His picture perfect wife is completely unaware of a huge secret that Harper shares with her model sister. Will these details become relevant in the ultimate payoff of the book? If you’ve read Blood Memory or Dead Sleep the answer should be obvious.
Pros for this book: I continue to really enjoy the Iles shared universe approach. Here, Doctor Lenz from the FBI shows up and has more of a story arc than and of the other books he’s appeared in. Iles certainly knows how to keep the plot moving. Despite being over 700 pages, the only part of the book that I felt dragged was the drawn out final conflict over the last fifty pages. Also, for as ridiculous as the killer was (besides his skillset listed above, his personal history is even more preposterous) I really enjoyed the lofty goal of the serial killer and the farfetched but reasonably explained science behind it.
Cons for this book: One of my biggest complains for this genre is how unrealistic it is for the protagonists to insert themselves into every aspect of the investigation, particularly when they’re not law enforcement and are sometimes even suspects in the crimes themselves. Here Harper and Miles also make themselves targets in a way that is very easy to see coming back to cause them harm. Harper’s wife Drew’s actions in the final few chapters also felt a bit out of nowhere based on her character arc the rest of the book.
In the Iles oeuvre, I’d put this one behind True Evil (my favorite of his serial killer books so far) and Sleep No More (his killer with a supernatural twist book) but ahead of Dead Sleep and Blood Memory. The book of his it actually reminded me of the most was Spandau Phoenix, due to its ambition and length, as well as to some extended backstory for some of the characters involved (and the name Rudolph).