Midnight Red

Mar 12, 2007

When I picked up this novel, the first thing I saw was a bit of copy on the back cover: "In the summer of 2000, the Buckhead Vampire was at large."

Midnight Red is not the kind of novel I would normally read, either for fun or professionally. I do not read Stephen King or Peter Straub or V. C. Andrews, and I have no interest in werewolves, poltergeists, ghosts, crazed dogs, or animated bulldozers. But this book was strenuously recommended to me, and I was told, correctly, that the author, Steven Rudd, is both a medical doctor and an attorney and that he was educated at the University of Alabama, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, and Harvard. How could I not take a look?

When I did pick up the novel, the first thing I saw was a bit of copy on the back cover: "In the summer of 2000, the Buckhead Vampire was at large."

So I began reading. The vampire in this tale is not a Bram Stoker Dracula vampire but a killer who drains the victims' bodies of their blood, and it seems he sort of has permission to do this. It gets complicated.

As there must be in such a story, there is a sleuth, in this case a female forensic psychiatrist named Kristen Van Zant. She has recently been working at the famous St. Elizabeth's Hospital outside of Washington, D.C. Literary people know St. Elizabeth's as the long-term residence of poor crazy Ezra Pound after he was found guilty of treason at the end of WWII. More recently, St. Elizabeth's has been the home of John Hinckley, the young man who was obsessed with Jody Foster and shot President Ronald Reagan.

Van Zant, our heroine, brilliant, attractive, single, is from Tuscaloosa, and her lifetime concern for treating deranged killers stems from events during her childhood here. Rudd writes: "It was late in the 1970s, and the local news was full of the Tuscaloosa Werewolf. . . . This killer strikes only during the full moon and leaves his victims hacked to pieces." At the time of the killings, Kristen's father is the chief of staff at Bryce Hospital. Kristen is only seven when The Werewolf, who, it turns out, is an orderly at the hospital, kills her whole family.

Having seen this slaughter as a child, Kris grows up to specialize in the criminally insane. Her father has told her that these people who do these bad things are "a bit mixed up in the head, that's all," and they just "need somebody to help them get better." This has become Kris's professional calling. She thinks that wildly psychotic killers should be studied and can be treated.

But first they must be caught, and Kris helps the Atlanta police do just that. The title of the thriller, "Midnight Red," is a shade of wallpaper. Atlanta interior decorators are involved. It is a clue.

The victims turn out to have a lot in common. In the past, all had nearly died from loss of blood, in, say, an accident or a shooting. Each had subsequently developed a sexual need to be nearly drained of their blood, as some crave near-asphyxiation. Where there is a need in a free-market economy, as every plumber or well-paid dominatrix knows, entrepreneurs will step forward to meet that need. In the course of the investigation the police find these specialists in the sexual service industry of Atlanta in a club named Lucifer's Realm.

As you might expect, with the author a neurologist and lawyer, all the legal and medical stuff rings true, if truly bizarre. The reader should know, though, that this is not merely a rough first novel?Rudd, while extremely well-educated, is essentially a self-taught writer. Some pieces of exposition are clumsily handled. "'If memory serves,' he added, 'you went and earned you a master's degree in psychology from the university here, with top honors and everything. And that was by the time you were twenty years old.'" Much information is passed to the reader in this fashion, and the dialogue is not Tennessee Williams either. But the story moves around Atlanta, the premise of this whole business is original as far as I'm concerned, and the lunatic, the actual killer lunatic that is, not the supporting cast of lunatics, is really special.