"The Fourth Monkey" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Written by J.D. Barker
2017, 416 pages, Fiction
Released on June 27th, 2017
I’m a sucker for a good serial killer story, and J.D. Barker’s The Fourth Monkey has everything that makes such narratives great reading: tension, grisly murders, creepy/bloody messages left for the authorities, action in hidden corners of a big city, and a likeable cast of characters obsessed with catching the murderer. If you throw in a main character with his fair share of emotional turmoil, a healthy dose of corruption, and enough rats, body parts, and torture to satisfy lovers of truly dark horror fiction, what you get is an enjoyable read that breezes by despite coming in at over 400 pages.
Chicago residents have lived in fear of the Four Monkey Killer for over half a decade. The authorities have done all in their power to catch him, but the elusive killer is still on the streets. Then, instead of finding him, they find his body in front of a city bus. Everything seems to suggest the killer was on his way to deliver a final message, and that means there’s a final victim still alive somewhere in the city. Detective Sam Porter, the lead investigator on the 4MK task force, is pulled from a world of grief following his wife’s murder during a robbery to deal with the last message, and he knows that the Four Monkey Killer isn’t done even if he’s dead. In the dead man’s jacket pocket, Porter finds a diary recounting the killer’s childhood. As the investigation gets going to save the last victim, new clues come to light, and in the world of this killer, nothing is what it seems.
The Fourth Monkey shares DNA with many popular novels and movies such as Seven and The Silence of the Lambs, but it manages to remain its own thing. The hurting main character, the large, violent, filthy city as background, the brilliant killer, and the ragtag team of secondary characters are all elements we’ve seen and read before, but Barker puts his own spin on things and his voice is strong enough to keep this falling into the pile of “another serial killer novel.” Also, seeing Chicago instead of Los Angeles or New York is a refreshing touch.
This novel does a few things right. The dialogue is excellent, the action moves forward at all times, and the shifting points of view between Porter and the pages from the diary are juggled successfully. It also walks a fine line between a classic thriller and the kind of horror novel that hardcore horror fans love. Most of the gruesome parts come from the diary, which is a window into the roots of a twisted mind and a look at a wonderfully deranged family:
I watched from the stairs as Father removed Mr. Carter's eyes with a pop. I don't think Mr. Carter realized it even happened at first, but then Father put the eyes in Mr. Carter's own hand for safekeeping. He held them far too tight. Father laughed at this while Mother kept cutting. Little cuts at first, only a few deep ones. She was a tease like that—she would cut an inch or so at his shoulder, just enough to get his attention, then plunge the knife deep into his thigh with a twist (she loved to twist the knife). Without his eyes, he didn't know where or when the next cut would come. I imagine such suspense tended to really get the old ticker pumping. When Mr. Carter started to slip into shock, Father sent me upstairs to fetch the smelling salts. Nobody wanted him passing out on us in the middle of all the excitement. What fun would that be? After a while, though, there was little we could do to keep him awake. Shock tends to be a spoiler.
The diary, interestingly, is simultaneously one of the novel’s highlights and its greatest weakness. On one hand, there is plenty of creepy stuff, blood, torture, and even a healthy dose of eroticism in those pages. On the other, there are passages here that shatter suspension of disbelief the way only bad dialogue can. For example, the family of killers constantly say things like “Oh, fiddlesticks!,” “Poppycock,” and “Skipper doodles!” They also describe orange juice as “sunshine in a glass.” The results is a bit of confusion simply because trying to make disturbed killers with a taste for blood sound like Ned Flanders simply doesn’t work.
Despite that one shortcoming, The Fourth Monkey is a great start to what promises to be an exciting series. I will be waiting to see what Barker does next, and so should you.