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Everett Larkin works for the Cold Case Squad: an elite—if understaffed and overworked—group of detectives who solve the forgotten deaths of New York City. Larkin is different from others, but his deduction skills are unmatched and his memory for minute details is unparalleled.
So when a spring thunderstorm uproots a tree in Madison Square Park, unearthing a crate with human remains inside, the best Cold Case detective is assigned the job. And when a death mask, like those prominent during the Victorian era, is found with the body, Larkin requests assistance from the Forensic Artists Unit and receives it in the form of Detective Ira Doyle, his polar opposite in every way.
Factual reasoning and facial reconstruction puts Larkin and Doyle on a trail of old homicide cases and a murderer obsessed with casting his victims’ likeness in death. Include some unapologetic flirting from Doyle, and this case just may end up killing Everett Larkin.
Madison Square Murders, the first book in C.S. Poe’s new Memento Mori series, is a compelling read featuring an intriguing, cleverly constructed mystery and one of the most unusual lead characters I’ve ever come across, a neuroatypical detective in New York City whose unique memory condition makes him an outstanding detective while at the same time causing him to struggle with anxiety, social interaction and the ability to function properly at even a basic – what most of us might consider ‘normal’ – level.
When a crate containing human remains is unearthed after a tree in Madison Square Park is uprooted by a spring thunderstorm, Detective Everett Larkin of the Cold Case Squad is called to the scene. The remains are clearly not new or recent, and although Larkin will have to wait for official confirmation, initial findings indicate that the deceased was a young man in his twenties – and most unusually, there’s what appears to be a bronze casting of a face tucked in near his feet. It’s an impressive piece of work artistically – but there’s no way of knowing if it’s a cast of the victim’s face or of someone totally unrelated. The CSU at the scene suggests the casting is a death mask – and that Larkin should get in touch with Detective Ira Doyle, one of NYPD’s small team of forensic artists, to get some expert advice.
Ira Doyle is something of a surprise to Larkin. Optimistic, flirtatious and always ready with a quip and a smile, he proves not only to be a talented artist and knowledgeable about his subject, but also very competent detective, able to keep up with Larkin’s not-always-easy-to-follow thought processes and not fazed by his… quirks. Doyle sets to work straight away, and in less than twenty-four hours, his facial reconstruction coupled with Larkin’s deep-dive into hundreds of missing person reports has enabled them to give a forgotten man his identify back and to work out that they’re investigating a murder that took place twenty-two years earlier. As Larkin and Doyle dig deeper, it becomes apparent that this wasn’t the killer’s first or only victim; nor was this the first or only death mask to have been made. They’re looking for an as yet unidentified serial killer.
Madison Square Murders was a hard book to put down! The mystery is superbly constructed and satisfyingly complex without being either overcomplicated or too easily unravelled, and there’s a lovely opposites-attract romance building between Larkin and Doyle that’s very clearly based on the solid foundations of genuine mutual respect and understanding. But what really puts this book into the DIK bracket is the characters, especially Larkin, who is a fantastic protagonist and unlike anyone I’ve ever read before. He’s fiercely intelligent and doesn’t make a secret of it, but personally, he’s a hot mess, unsure, deeply damaged and finding it increasingly difficult to keep it together. His HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory) is often (thoughtlessly) admired by others, but for him it’s not so much a gift as it is a curse. It means he’s unable to forget a single tragedy or misfortune once he’s learned of it, the “rolodex” in his mind always moving and flipping between one association and the next, while his short term memory is hopeless and he can’t function from one hour to the next without a detailed daily plan. Not helping matters right now is his disintegrating marriage; Larkin is starting to realise that his husband doesn’t really know him and doesn’t want to – possibly that he never wanted to – and despite all his promises that Larkin wouldn’t have to hide his quirks at home, seems to have believed all along that Larkin could and would change. The way the author illuminates Larkin’s inner world is simply brilliant; his words and thoughts, his feelings, his insecurities and his deep-seated need to be seen and understood, all are expertly – sometimes heartbreakingly – well communicated and bring this unique character vividly to life.
Ira Doyle is the perfect foil for him despite their outward differences. In complete contrast to Larkin, Doyle is laid-back and charming with a killer smile, but as Larkin very quickly discerns, he’s also whip-smart and a very good detective as well as a talented artist. More importantly, Doyle seems to instinctively know just the right thing to say or do to stop Larkin spiralling or make him feel comfortable when he becomes overloaded by impressions and associations, and Larkin slowly starts to realise that here, in a person he’s known for less than three days, he’s found someone who sees him more clearly than anyone ever has – even his husband. He also works out that there’s more to Doyle than his bright smile and easy-going manner would suggest, that the reason he’s so good at putting Larkin at ease is that he has his own demons to slay, that he, too, has suffered loss and heartbreak – it’s just that he’s much better at hiding it. Doyle may not be as obviously colourful a character as Larkin, but he’s no mere sidekick and is equally well-written and fleshed-out.
The story takes place over just a few days, but the progress of the relationship is perfect, not too fast, not too slow, but a careful progression from colleagues to friends to the possibility of more in the future, and the mystery reaches a satisfactory conclusion – although (and I should be used to this from Ms. Poe by now!) there’s a cliffhanger designed to lead into the next book.
Madison Square Murders is a cracking read and a terrific series opener. Book two can’t arrive soon enough!