You had me at illuminated manuscripts.
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with author Tom Lukas about his first book in a developing series, Special Operations. Standing by his ultra-hip 1972 Volvo p1800e coupe dubbed Spycar, which he’s touring the country in to promote his series, he offered inside access to a mind always wired for writing, but that didn’t take the plunge until his 30s. At that point he exited a carpentry career to earn a degree in English literature. Readers will be glad he did.
Having recently read Special Operations, I can see how Lukas’ rich and varied life experiences, tinted by both triumph and tragedy, developed into a thriller that showcases the best and worst traits of the human soul. Knowing my interests in forensic psychology, he’d mentioned the complexity of the villain’s character. As you delve into the book you find that some bystanders begin to laud the antagonist’s missions and find yourself wondering how far you would go to protect innocents.
But is it protection, revenge, the indulging of a grossly overinflated, demonic god complex in a garish, theatrical bonfire of narcissism, or all of the above? Or more? What the Illuminator, the shadowy figure who captures key community figures, does is unquestionably over the top and excessive. But in bringing such a character to life, Lukas takes the revenge fantasies that victims of certain horrors might well have indulged and injects them with expired steroids. Some of these stygian twists and turns are so gut-wrenching they’re difficult to read, but they are not beyond the realm of possibility. That’s what makes them so terrifying.
How the Illuminator got from point A to point Z on the sadism spectrum really made me stop and think. I had to build a mental timeline to zero in on how an arguable hero became a butcher who seems like the next incarnation of Josef Mengele. This was especially intriguing because on the very first page, we learn that the Illuminator might be a woman. The MO and signature are not typical of a woman.
Without giving away key plot points, I could see how certain events contributed to this, although how we respond to such events is often a matter of choice. But there was some other factor at play, something whispering behind the curtain that I couldn’t put my finger on until later in the book. This missing puzzle piece nearly floated to the surface by the final pages, shocking in its stark reality, and causing readers to question how often such things happen in the real world.
Also of particular interest to me were the law enforcement characters. I’ve known a lot of cops in various contexts– as a friend, as a spouse, as a coworker, as a student, as a survivor, and so on. Detective Nick Giaccone resembles some of the veterans I know, guys who now do consulting or side work as they age out of the ranks. Those are also some of the best investigators I know.
Giaccone is unwittingly drawn into this case just as he’s about to retire and is pulled deeper and deeper into a tragedy involving a rookie officer. In his investigation he realizes that he should have been paying more attention to his spider sense all along– and this despite his seasoned instincts. As he replays conversations and dredges up old memories, he is able to piece together the bigger picture, leading him to an epic showdown with a surprisingly formidable enemy.
In my writings on sociopaths and domestic violence, I like to remind people of what Gavin de Becker said in his bestseller The Gift of Fear, a book a trusted cop coworker introduced me to over a decade ago. Trust that uneasy feeling you get even if it doesn’t make sense– don’t dismiss it. If someone says or does something that makes you feel uncomfortable, pay attention.
In The Gift of Fear, de Becker tells us of a man who walked into a convenience store, but had an odd feeling and wound up leaving without buying anything. Shooting erupted soon after. Similarly, domestic violence victims often say that they sensed something was off when they met their abuser, but were charmed by their words anyway. That gut feeling isn’t prone to inaccuracies.
This is the voice that rises in Detective Giaccone as he teams up with a noted professor to interpret clues, particularly bits of illuminated manuscripts positioned at crime scenes. As Professor Canon Nailor and Giaccone connect over their shared second language and common cause, they become the odd couple of policing, at least for a time. We realize there could be more to Professor Nailor when the “dragon” enters, his vehicle of choice. But is there? And why would there be?
Ultimately this book reminded me of what a Holocaust survivor said about Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann– that Eichmann lives in all of us. Human passions and desires, unchecked, can lead straight to hell. There is a point at which the desire for justice or revenge can cross over into the very territory that the justice seeker wishes to conquer. The abused can become the abuser; the advocate can become the vigilante. In our quest to set the world right we can become something even worse than the monster that violated us or those we love.
Special Operations starts like a roller coaster ride through a haunted house– if you remember the old Flight to Mars ride at the Seattle Center you’ll think you’re inside of that. Safely inside the standard formulaic crime novel, you buckle up and prepare to meet the usual cast of characters. Standard and usual, however, do not apply here. By the end of the book you’re out in the open, ten stories above the city at the top of the tracks not knowing when or how you’ll plummet down in book two.
Lukas knows evil, and as a Christian who studies the dark souls among us, I am reminded of just how dark the night is inside a soul surrendered to forces that strengthen unholy desires. I am also moved to acknowledge how powerful love, devotion, and loyalty are, especially when there is justice to be sought.
In conclusion, Lukas has a gift for descriptive prose and a deep empathy and compassion for victims of sex crimes. For a guy who’s never worked in law enforcement, I appreciate how tuned in he is to the nuances of cops and the frustrations of some of the more seasoned investigators. My only major criticism, other than a smattering of choppy sentences that I tend to write with as well, is that at times I had trouble understanding how many years had passed between a key character’s death and this storyline. At times it seemed like a decade or more; other times much shorter. When I read it again sometime I’ll pay more attention to that. But first I plan to get my hands on a review copy of book two when it’s available. Lukas is actively conducting research to make the next installation at least as realistic and jarring.
Special Operations is published by Spycar Books and Yancastel Inc. in Seattle, Washington. Visit Tom Lukas’ website, Spycar Books, to learn more about this series, the car, and the man who had the courage to switch careers to start chasing his dreams.
Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression — hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of the liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation? –Wilkie Collins
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