With Dracul hitting shelves this past week, I figured it was time to rip into J.D. Barker’s thriller The Fourth Monkey. The book had been on my reading list ever since I met the author at a conference this past summer. Barker, who’s been described as “the luckiest guy in publishing,” pens both thriller and horror novels. While his horror-writing background drew my curiosity, a bigger question gnawed at me going into one–is this guy as good as he is lucky?
Fourth Monkey opens with a clever hook–the serial killer dies in the opening pages. It’s a great, simple twist that left me facepalming for not thinking of it myself. In fact, I’m still facepalming as I type this review. Thankfully, though the Fourth Monkey Killer (4MK) perishes, the conflict doesn’t go with him. Somewhere in Chicago his latest victim–a fifteen-year-old girl–is trapped without food or water. Now it’s up to detective Sam Porter to find her.
At the crime scene, Porter finds a number of clues. Chief among them is a package containing a severed ear. The mailing address thrusts Porter into the heart of the investigation as he traverses Chicago investigating the victim’s father, a dubious real-estate mogul who’d rather not be associated with the missing girl. Hmm.
While Porter’s storyline clicks along at a brisk pace, the book truly shines when we peruse the killer’s diary. These diary entries detail 4MK’s struggles with with teenage lust, his split loyalty between his sociopathic parents, and his growth toward becoming the eventual ear-slicing Chicago murderer. Though the concept of a serial-killer family initially may seem far-fetched, Barker writes with enough charm and detail to sell it.
These diary entries are interspersed throughout Fourth Monkey. Rather than simply offering a breather from the main storyline, the diary connects back to the main plot and somehow manage to steal the show. That’s saying a lot because normally I can’t stand flashback subplots. In fact, Barker used a similar structural technique in his horror novel Forsaken and I thought it neutered the story’s pacing. This time around, however, the diary in Fourth Monkey gives the villain star-power. I mean it. Star power. You know how some people consider The Dark Knight to be a Joker movie instead of a Batman movie? That’s how I see Fourth Monkey. You show up for the hero and end up being transfixed by the gritty, charismatic villain.
Grit, while we’re on the subject, oozes throughout Fourth Monkey. Barker put his horror background to good use, punctuating pain and death with sharp sensory details that’ll send your spine into a shake. Get ready for Chicago’s dark rat-infested underground tunnels, a pitch-black hostage chamber dripping with rusty water, and a family basement turned torture chamber. Though the genre may say “Thriller” there’s plenty for horror fans to love.
Fourth Monkey isn’t without it’s flaws. For one, I found myself wanting more out of the detectives. While Sam Porter is a effective lead, he bears a traumatic burden (which I won’t spoil) that is coyly hidden from the reader for a good chunk of the novel. Given that we get his POV from the get-go, I found it hard to believe that his thoughts wouldn’t elaborate on his pain sooner. Another POV issue involved a hotshot black chick detective named Clair. While she’s a fine supporting character, her sections didn’t showcase the same sharp writing and distinctive voices of Porter, 4MK, and the victim. In the end, the Clair chapters came off flat and seemed to exist solely to advance the plot.
Flaws aside, The Fourth Monkey is a must-read thriller. Barker stirs up a hurricane of curiosity with his haunting murderer and maintains the storm for four-hundred pages that’ll feel like two-hundred. Suspense and horror fans can’t go wrong.