If in the detective fiction genre, predictability is the worst crime of which an author can be accused, A. J. Holt in Watch Me (St. Martin's Press, 326 pages, $31.99 cloth) is most assuredly not guilty. Holt (a pseudonym for a writer who lives in Vancouver) has written a fast-paced, riveting page-turner-a thriller which actually deserves to be called that.
When Special Agent Janet Fletcher of the FBI-Jay to her friends-obtains evidence without a warrant, thereby unwittingly helping a serial murder get a lighter sentence, her superiors decide she needs a "rest" and send her to an arson unit in New Mexico. It isn't long, however, before Jay and trouble find each other again. When she discovers a serial killer investigation going on in Santa Fe, she uses her considerable computer skills to track down the killer. In the process, she happens upon a "club" of serial killers exchanging their grizzly stories on a secret bulletin board hidden in a multi-layered computer game similar to Dungeon and Dragons, but much more violent.
Unbeknownst to Jay, her hacking is bringing her closer and closer to the most dangerous serial killer of them all, the Iceman, and also to a retired FBI agent, William Hawkins, a close friend of Jay's, Charles Langford. Hawkins is tracking the Iceman, who has over the years made him his chosen "audience" by sending him photos of his crime scenes and horrendously mutilated victims.
To say anything more about the events of this superbly plotted novel would be a disservice. Suffice it to say that this is more than a cop-chases-killer story. It is an archetypal morality tale about the perpetually shifting, elusive line between right and wrong, and the inevitable personal choices that being human entails.
In a society where bureaucratic procedure, with its sluggish paperwork and endless regulations, seems to aid the criminal rather than the victim, Jay's I'll-take-it-into-my-own hands perspective is understandable. She doesn't want to harm the innocent; she just wants the guilty to get the punishment they deserve.
The haunting question, of course, is whether in the long run Jay is really any different from those she pursues. It is to Holt's credit that she forces both Jay-and us-to wrestle with this complex issue.