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blood work

7 may 2012

In Blood Work, one of Michael Connelly's earlier crime novels that I picked up for 44 cents in a thrift store, we learn early on that retired FBI agent and serial-killer profiler Terry McCaleb has recently had a heart transplant. Of course we hope that the heart he's received is that of a serial killer. Connelly provides the turn of the screw by revealing that McCaleb's heart is instead that of a murder victim.

Naturally, McCaleb learns this from the victim's sister, whose goals are (1) to find her sister's killer, (2) to find a father-figure for her orphaned nephew, and (3) to find her way into McCaleb's bed. These goals become McCaleb's too. He knows that he shouldn't be trying to solve a murder – which is quickly revealed to be a string of murders – because he's retired, and doesn't even have a PI license. But when has any detective in the history of crime fiction been able to resist a murder case that needs him?

Despite contrivances that would make Agatha Christie blush, Blood Work is a solid, beguiling entertainment. From long acquaintance with serial killers, Terry McCaleb has learned to recognize their evil trademarks. He starts to suspect that the robbery-killings he's investigating are the work of a serial villain. But his heart donor was killed in a banal convenience-store holdup. Is he reading too much of himself into the hunt?

Before long, McCaleb is not only the only investigator with a clue; he's also the prime suspect. Now, we know that he can't have done the murders, unless Connelly is setting us up for a twist ending that would, well, make Agatha Christie blush. But McCaleb can ask "cui bono?" as well as any mystery reader. And the main benefit from the grisly murders seems to have been that McCaleb has gotten a new heart, a new life, and a new girlfriend.

Michael Connelly's most recent work has gotten a little too rhetorical and polemical for my taste, though I remain a big fan. I'm enjoying catching up with his earlier fiction, which combines puzzle and thriller in a bracing high-octane formula.

Connelly, Michael. Blood Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998.