Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope (St. Martin's Press, 2016)

Collecting the Dead is one of those rare books that comes along and just knocks the reader off his/her feet. Not only are the characters intriguing, the plot is engaging, and Kope's prose is elegantly written, taking this novel to a higher level than the average suspense story.

The main character, Magnus “Steps” Craig is an FBI agent who has an uncommon skill that only a few people in the world know about. He can detect where a perpetrator and victim have been by seeing their “shine,” a term that Steps uses to explain seeing a person's aura in distinct colors. By seeing and feeling a victim's shine at a crime scene, he can sense whether that victim's heart is still beating or whether he/she has lost his/her life. He can also see the places the perpetrator has been, whether it is inside a car, in a home, or at a gravesite. The only people who know about Steps' special ability are his father, the director of the FBI, and Steps' partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan. In order to keep his gift a secret, Steps often pretends to be tracking the ground, looking for clues, staging a search. After all, if the press got hold of his unusual system for finding people, where would his credibility be?

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Steps used his unusual tracking system for the first time when he was only fourteen years old. He helped to find two missing boys who had wandered off at night. The gifted tracker explains, “Someone said, 'How you gonna track them in the dark?' and I just said, “step by step.' Thirty minutes later I found the boys huddled in the hollow of a mossy old stump, scared to death but otherwise unharmed.” (p. 7) Steps notes that from this moment forward everyone in his life, including his mother, has called him “Steps,” rather than Magnus, his very unusual first name.

Steps has a sense of humor similar to that of Nelson DeMille's irreverent John Corey, and the quirkiness of Cormoran Strike, protagonist of Robert Galbraith's (aka J.K. Rowling) series about the brilliant, one-legged detective. But Steps carries a darkness in him that adds to the multi-layered character; he was a childhood victim of an event that is only hinted at in this novel, and is terrified of the woods as a result of his own experiences. Yet, many of the searches in which he must engage as an FBI tracker take him into forests that terrify him and remind him of his horrifying past. In many ways the reader senses that Steps suffers from post traumatic stress, coupled with his sense of personal responsibility in tracking his victims. This makes Steps as vulnerable emotionally as the victims for whom he searches.

Another facet of Craig's personality that is unusual in suspense novels, is the depths of despair that he feels when his team is too late to save a victim. His partner, Jimmy, does his best to stave off the darkness that Steps often feels with these words of consolation, “We save the ones we can.” (p.11) This phrase is repeated frequently as Steps and Jimmy investigate their latest case, tracking a serial killer, whom is dubbed the “Sad Face Killer.”

Steps expresses the pain that sears him upon finding an earlier victim, Jess Parker, whom he knew in high school. He states, “She's burned into my soul, Jess Parker is, seared and smoldering and raw, a hurt that everyone in the community felt and one that I could do nothing about. She's just gone and the world is unjust and I have to look at the human wreckage floating in the wake of such monsters. Over and over and over I have to look, and I feat the monsters are looking back. They're with me in the lonely watches of the night, when sleep has fled and all that remains are the images.” (p. 52)

In fact, Steps keeps two scrapbooks that maintain those images; one is black and contains the photos of those victims who died during an investigation, and the other is a white album, in which he keeps the pictures of those he and Jimmy have found alive, the hikers, children who have wandered away, and victims of maniacs who were located before they could be killed. Steps torments himself with the photos of his failures, dwelling on the darkness of defeat. However, Jimmy protects Steps' tormented soul by begging him to concentrate on the white album, their joint success stories.

Jimmy, a family man, is also a complex individual and the perfect partner for Steps, who doesn't usually carry a gun and verges on pacifism during a chase. Jimmy is the Steps' protector while in the field, which puts a double whammy on Jimmy as a tracker. He simultaneously searches for the bad guy while looking out for the good guy.

As mentioned previously Spencer Kope is a gifted author who through his characters writes passages that give the reader pause to contemplate while racing through this fast paced novel. One such passage has to do with the use of profanity, which Steps provides us with the dictionary definition “outside the temple,” or taken to mean something that desecrates what is holy. (p. 99) Jimmy, notes Steps, is opposed to using profanity out of respect for what he refers to as the “higher mind.” Steps explains, “He's told me repeatedly through the years that profanity is the refuge of a simple mind, and that people who swear excessively lack the imagination to think of anything better. He once told me that profanity pushes the mind into the sewer of human wretchedness and drags the soul along for company.” (p. 99)

This interlude regarding the definition of profanity is fascinating in that it reveals Jimmy's disdain for a filthy mind and helps the reader to understand the quality of Jimmy's character is truly trying to “drain the swamp” of human filth and depravity. It also gives us pause to consider why people, including ourselves, resort to profanity in certain situations.

Finally, throughout my reading of Collecting the Dead, I could not refrain from reflecting on the use of the term “shine” as it appeared in Stephen King's 1977 breakout classic The Shining. In that twisted tale, a little boy named Danny Torrance, possesses a gift/curse referred to by his much older friend, Dick Halloran, as “the shining.” In King's novel, young Danny has psychic abilities that allow him to see past events and participate in other supernatural moments, while stuck with his parents in a haunted hotel, The Overlook, located in the Canadian Rockies. In 2013 King gave us Doctor Sleep in which readers learned what had happened to Danny as he stumbled into adulthood, also a victim of his fractured childhood.

Kope took the kernel of the idea of what it means to have a “shining” and made it his own in FBI Tracker Steps Craig. By allowing Steps to employ his psychic ability as a tool in sleuthing, Kope gives us a unique hero, who empathizes with victims and loathes the monsters. It's like turning a prism in the light to see another vibrant color that excites those who relish suspense novels with a tinge of the supernatural in them.

The best news of all is that Collecting the Dead leaves the reader right where we want to be; with the promise of a sequel, A Shine So Cold, which is slated to appear in June 2107. In the meantime, if you have not yet read Kope's thriller, it will keep you distracted on a cold, dark, winter's night.