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Voice of Villainy

Jeffery Deaver's stock in trade, evil characters with psychological depth, heighten the tension in his thrillers.

October 19, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN | Special to The Times

Jeffery Deaver shouldn't be a reasonable man. His novels are marked by mayhem: torture, psychological disorder and a horrifying, if creative, range of violent death. He has written about kidnappers and psychopaths, all with a sense of enjoyment--of absolute relish--that makes one wonder what the 48-year-old author likes to do in his spare time.

Yet, reached by phone at his home in suburban Virginia, Deaver seems downright easygoing and thoughtful as he discusses the thrillers he has written since the early '80s at the rate of nearly one a year.

"When I sit down to write, I'm very calculated about it," he admits in a measured tone. "My goal is to write a fast-paced, seat-of-the pants novel, and I try to come up with the most terrifying situation I can."

His equanimity may be all the more compelling because it comes across long distance while everything else about his voice on the phone seems somehow disembodied, even somehow deracinated, bearing only a trace of his Midwestern roots. In many ways, though, such a conversation is entirely appropriate, since his last two novels --1997's "The Bone Collector" (Viking Penguin) and its recently released follow-up, "The Coffin Dancer" (Simon & Schuster)--revolve around a quadriplegic detective, Lincoln Rhyme, whose restricted circumstances basically have taken him out of the physical world.

Once the New York Police Department's head of forensics, Rhyme now operates from a specially outfitted bedroom in his Manhattan brownstone, where he relies on a battery of high-tech devices not just to carry out his investigations but also to survive. It's an idea that smacks of a certain gimmickry. Yet while Deaver acknowledges the impulse, he insists that more essential is "the broader issue of a character who is his mind before anything else, which in a way we all are. Rhyme operates independent of physical prowess, independent of race, independent of gender. He really is his mind."

The notion of a thriller motivated by mind may seem at odds with the more visceral requirements of suspense fiction, but in Deaver's view, that's precisely the point. His intention is to write books that use the balance between thought and action to operate on a couple of levels at once.

On the one hand, his writing is tautly plotted, with dramatic sequences that unfold quickly, almost spasmodically: "The Coffin Dancer" pits Rhyme against a hit man out to kill a cluster of grand jury witnesses before they can be deposed, while "The Bone Collector" involves a psychopath whose atrocities mirror those of a murderer who terrorized 19th century New York.

At the same time, the Rhyme novels also function as elaborate cat-and-mouse games, where much of the tension evolves from the machinations of intellect. There's more at work here than Rhyme's status as a quadriplegic, although his nearly superhuman leaps of logic--"his skill," as Deaver puts it, "at making deductions no one else does"--are highlighted by his inability to perform even the most basic physical tasks.

But equally important is the level at which Rhyme engages with his adversaries, a process that informs both his pursuit of the Coffin Dancer and the grisly way that, throughout "The Bone Collector," he (or, more accurately, his partner, Amelia Sachs, who serves as his proxy) finds clues at each crime scene that lead him to the next. His investigations are presented very much as contests, with detective and criminal trying to outguess each other at every turn.

To make this work, Deaver spends a lot of time on his villains, who often end up as significant characters in their own rights. As "The Bone Collector" and "The Coffin Dancer" progress, we eat with them, sleep with them, live with them; we get inside their memories, their emotions, until we know the pathological patterns of their lives.

Partly, Deaver suggests, this is a dramatic device, a way of ratcheting up the tension, since by cutting back and forth from one point-of-view to another, he can let his readers know what's coming before his characters have a clue.

But more to the point is the issue of conflict, which Deaver sees as essential to fiction in general, and to thrillers most of all.

"My books are based on conflict," he explains. "A story, for me, involves believable characters in a conflict that is ultimately resolved for good or evil." This, of course, requires that the villain be a worthy antagonist, a factor Deaver thinks too many suspense novelists overlook.

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