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Book review: Puppets by Daniel Hecht

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Imagine this scenario: You're having a stressful time at work. Your bosses make you feel like a puppet, always jerking you this way and that way, and you're starting to think your company is morally bankrupt. Do you (a) relax at home with a stiff drink, (b) call the press and blow the whistle on the bigwigs, or (c) protest your situation by arranging to have several completely innocent people tortured, killed and strung up on the wall like marionettes?

Option (c) is kind of high concept, but it'll get the bosses' attention. It certainly does in Daniel Hecht's new thriller Puppets, though to explain just who or how would be to give away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say, when New York State Police detective Mo Ford starts finding corpses arranged like puppets in Westchester County, he can't pin the murders on the so-called Howdy Doody killer, who left a similar string of dangling victims in Brooklyn and New Jersey. Howdy Doody is already behind bars. Moreover, being brain-damaged from a suicide attempt, he isn't in a position to play Hannibal Lecter and give Mo insight into the crimes.

So the moody detective goes to work, with help from a shapely psychologist named Rebecca Ingalls. When he starts to suspect that the puppet murders are linked to a secret government experiment dating back to the Vietnam War, Mo faces interference from an FBI task force that doesn't want him to dig too deep into the mystery.

Hecht, who lives in Montpelier, was a guitarist with a successful solo release on the Windham Hill label before he turned to fiction. His previous novels show he's no novice in the high-concept school of thriller writing, which serves up its scares with side dishes of technobabble and philosophical speculation. The hero of the bestselling 1998 Skull Session -- which also features detective Mo Ford -- has Tourette's syndrome and a house full of things that go bump in the night. The Babel Effect explores the notion that evil might be a virus.

Although Puppets is just now seeing the light of day in the U.S., it was originally released in October 2001 in the United Kingdom. That's worth noting, because the novel's ending makes points that feel chillingly prescient in light of 9/11. While Puppets takes place in a world that contains the Twin Towers, it looks forward to today's edgier, more paranoid mood, as well as backward to conspiracy-theory potboilers of the 1990s, such as Jacob's Ladder and The X-Files. Still, it's probably the only book you'll read in which a killer tortures someone by forcing him to rearrange his living room.

Hecht is an accomplished writer. He sets the scene carefully and fleshes out his characters, particularly Mo Ford, who's prone to loneliness and "self-savaging," and often feels like a puppet himself. Hecht describes the killer's M.O. in excruciatingly realistic detail -- the squeamish, especially animal lovers, should be warned. His portraits of places also ring true, from the desolate murder scenes to the SUV-clogged Westchester freeways to the "dark, dirty, gutsy bear hug" of Manhattan.

For all this, Puppets doesn't transcend the cliches of its genre. This is the type of novel in which a bad guy who wants to threaten the hero brings him to the reptile cage at the zoo to watch a python devouring fuzzy bunnies. It's the type of novel in which the cop hero is a maverick, always in trouble with his superiors, but only because he cares too much about all the "crimes and hurts" in the big, bad world. As for the heroine, she's smart, resourceful, plainspoken, nurturing, and "smell[s] like a summer field" when she and the hero are getting intimate. If she has any fault, it's that she seems beyond reach to Mo, who "had long since decided that much of love was about marketability, about station."

Puppets is a mixed bag: Hecht can make acerbic insights like the one above, then plunge us back into a standard psycho-killer yarn. The novel never quite lives up to the pretensions embodied in Hecht's conception of its villain, who imagines he's on a "metaphysical quest" but comes off as more of a sociopathic whiner.

However, killer-thriller fans who are considering Puppets as beach reading -- not a bad idea -- can probably do without an extended dissection of its literary value. The crux of the matter is: Does Hecht pull off the suspense? Does he send shivers up and down your spine and keep you guessing wildly about the killer's identity until the last few pages? The answer is, sort of.

By interspersing chapters written from the perspectives of the hero and the villain, Hecht gives us a dark frisson of illicit knowledge. He makes us eager to see the villain get his comeuppance, even as we wonder who he really is behind his mask of suburban anonymity. But, in order to keep that mask on the bad guy, Hecht has the normally astute Mo drop the ball in a couple of crucial places, and he never adequately explains why. Readers who enjoy the novel's larger political implications may also be frustrated by Mo and Rebecca's behavior after all is revealed.

While Puppets isn't quite Silence of the Lambs, the book's central tableau will stick in readers' heads for a while. Who hasn't sometimes felt like a puppet, controlled by implacable outside forces? And who hasn't fantasized about turning the tables on the people who pulled the strings?

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