Alice Blanchard,
The Breathtaker
(Time Warner, 2004)

I love a good murder-mystery -- especially one that keeps you guessing before revealing the killer. That is exactly what Alice Blanchard does with her novel The Breathtaker. I actually looked forward to my daily commute to/from work one week as I listened to the 10-hour unabridged audiobook version of the story. This tale has a "twist" (bad foreshadowing pun definitely intended) that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Police Chief Charlie Grover is a single parent residing in the small Oklahoma town of Promise. When a tornado rips through his jurisdiction, destroying homes and crops, Charlie is not surprised to find several deaths attributable to the storm. Upon closer examination, however, it is discovered that these folks were actually murdered. Rather quickly, the "debris killer" gets his nickname due to the fact that what looks like flying debris are actually handmade weapons the perpetrator used to impale his victims. Not to spoil any surprises, but like most serial killers, this one generally leaves a calling card -- one that will turn your stomach in disgust.

The suspect list starts out from known storm chasers but eventually narrows down to a handful that includes Charlie's alcoholic father. This man brutalized him as a child and Charlie is pretty sure that he was responsible for burning down their house when Charlie was a boy. Charlie may have escaped with his life, but his mother did not. Add that to the fact that Charlie has healed burns over much of his body and you can understand why his relationship with his father is more than a little strained.

While some of the evidence points to his father, others on the short list include one of Charlie's own deputies, the boy his daughter "loves," and a deadbeat dad from the bad side of town. I was caught offguard and did not suspect the real killer. I forgot that killers also have the ability to lie. On top of that, even the most despicable characters sometimes tell the truth. Listen to the clues carefully and you might figure it all out way before I did.

I will admit that the book borders on being unbelievable. I certainly am not a weather expert and from what I can tell from the track records of the professionals on television and radio, neither are they when it comes to predicting when and where bad weather will strike. But there are experienced storm chasers who surely mix modern gadgetry with honed instincts. One would only have to get lucky periodically to take advantage of a severe weather situation. And if your mindset is that you are invincible or you are an adrenalin junky, then heading directly towards a storm does not sound that crazy. So, in that regards, perhaps the story is plausible. You will have to see/listen for yourself to determine if you agree.

Perhaps part of the reason I enjoyed The Breathtaker as much as I did was due to the reading of Peter Coyote. He has been in movies such as A Walk to Remember and Erin Brockovich. Peter made sure that all the characters in the audiobook had distinct voices; he was great at conveying rollercoaster emotions as well as the tension leading up to an approaching tornado. The only thing that made me chuckle a little is that Peter sounds like he has been a life-long smoker. For that reason, even Charlie's 16-year-old daughter has a gravely voice. I should mention that background noise, such as rain, hail, etc., also enhanced the audio experience.

Whether you find the premise of The Breathtaker believable or not, the book is worth its entertainment value. Blanchard has also written Darkness Peering as well as The Stuntman's Daughter. She lives in Los Angeles and I hope she is writing her next book.

- Rambles
written by Wil Owen
published 2 October 2004

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