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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dark Lost Souls Leaves Me Yearning For the Light

Reading Lisa Jackson's Lost Souls reminded me why I don't usually read crime fiction. While the ex-psychology major in me finds it fascinating to delve into the corroded mind of a serial killer, my naiver side just wants to dive under the bed and forget that such monsters exist (even in fictional form). Exploring a killer's mind means sinking into his dark, macabre world. As I read this novel, I had a tough time shaking that darkness - suffice it to say, I was glad to close this book and come back into the light. I guess I hadn't realized how atmospheric and engulfing the story was until I finally resurfaced!

Anyway, the novel features Kristi Bentz, the 27-year-old daughter of a New Orleans cop. After living through some nightmarish experiences (detailed in previous books, although I'm not sure of the titles), including a near-death experience, Kristi just wants to get on with her life. Packing all of her stuff into her aging Honda, she turns her focus to All Saints College, the Baton Rouge school where she studied as an undergrad. Her father begs her not to go - after all, she's still recovering from a run-in with a serial killer, and he's heard about "some missing girls" (11) at All Saints. Unbeknownst to him, the girls are the exact reason for her interest in the school. An aspiring true-crime writer, Kristi smells a story. She knows the girls met with foul play, even if the police dismiss the disappearances as flighty coeds eloping with their boyfriends. If finding the truth means going "undercover," Kristi is willing.

It's been a few years since Kristi strolled the grounds of All Saints, and plenty has changed in her absence. Courses now range from English 101 to Introduction to Forensic Science to the very popular The Influence of Vampyrism on Modern Culture. The faculty, too, have undergone an extreme makeover - the English Department, especially, seem to have been selected from a stack of "Hollywood head shots" (43). Since Kristi knows the missing girls all took courses from the same handsome professors, she packs her own schedule with classes on Shakespeare, forensics and vampires. Before she even steps foot in Vampyrology, Kristi gets a warning from an old roommate turned associate professor - Lucretia Stevens hints that a vampirism cult has invaded campus, and the missing girls may have been a part of it. Shocked, Kristi begins investigating the claims, only to be brushed off by nearly every person she suspects of involvement. Only a withdrawn girl named O seems to validate Kristi's suspicions - she wears a vial of blood around her neck. The deeper she looks, the stranger the situation gets. Kristi can't escape the feeling that someone is watching her, tracking her every move.

As if her life doesn't have enough creepy in it already, Kristi's also been plagued by visions - strangers, her father, and girls on campus turn a green color before her eyes, as if they have been completely drained of blood. Kristi fears these are premonitions of imminent death. Maybe she's crazy, but she knows of one person who will believe her. She turns to Jay McKnight, a criminologist whose heart she crushed when she left for All Saints as a freshman. Together, the pair continue to probe the school's dark underworld, while trying to resist the attraction that has already led to heartbreak once. While battling their feelings for one another, they descend deeper and deeper into All Saints' bizarre world of vampirism. It's a dangerous place ruled by a bloodthirsty killer, a sadistic psychopath who wants Kristi to be his/her next victim.

As I mentioned before, Lisa Jackson sucks the reader in with this atmospheric novel. Post-Katrina Baton Rouge provides a haunting background, which adds a sinister air to this story of vampires, cults and lost souls. Neither the writing nor the plot provide a lot of originality, but the characters are interesting and sympathetic. Again, not very original, but believable. Fast pacing keeps the reader turning pages, despite stomach-churning descriptions of necrophilia and literal blood baths. The ending leaves a lot to be desired. I was surprised by the killer's identity, mostly because it came out of the blue. I had to flip back through the book to even remember who he/she was. Also, the author makes the killer a psychopath, but never really explains how he/she snapped. While the tone of the novel fit the story, I found it dark and depressing. Lost Souls is one of those dark, hard-edged stories that isn't for the feint of heart. It's fast-paced, engrossing and suspenseful, but I had a hard time stomaching it.

I know Lisa Jackson has written many best-selling books, so obviously, other people really enjoy her books. I'm a bit of a wimp, so I probably won't read her again. Despite my weak stomach, there are a few series in this genre that I enjoy, including Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan books and Jeffery Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme/Amelia Sachs novels. You may (quite rightly) say that Deaver's books, especially, are just as twisted as Lisa Jackson's, but I've decided that I like these kinds of books only when they offer more than just a gory suspense story. Both Deaver and Reichs serve up mysteries perpetrated and solved by fascinating characters. Lisa Jackson seems to focus more on the gore. So, I'll take my crime fiction in small doses, thank you very much, and only when it's tempered by well-crafted, interesting characters.

Grade: C

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