William Diehl is a master storyteller who unfortunately died in 2006 before he could complete Seven Ways to Die, his tenth novel. Before his death he was able to write 412 manuscript pages of the novel, which was completed by Kenneth John Atchity, a friend and fellow writer, with the help of extensive story notes and outlines that were left behind. Diehl’s bestselling crime novels included Sharky’s Machine (1978) and Thai Horse (1987), and I can see why he was, and continues to be, so popular. Seven Ways to Die is a delicious mixture of police procedural, forensics and character study, with an unexpected and healthy dose of sex thrown in.
Micah Cody is a Nez Perce Indian homicide detective with a pony tail and an uncanny ability to communicate with animals. As a main character he’s got it all: good looks, mystery, and the ability to get into the mind of a serial killer. He’s formed a subgroup of the NYPD called the Tactical Assistant Squad (TAZ) and assembled the best of the best to help him solve homicides, including a computer whiz, a forensic pathologist, and an assistant DA. He also has a white German shepherd named Charley with “the best nose in the business” that accompanies Cody on investigations, and indeed plays an important part in solving this mystery.
TAZ is called in to investigate the murder of a successful stock broker named Raymond Handley. They are first to arrive on the scene and discover the victim dead, naked and tied to a chair. His throat is slashed but there isn’t a drop of blood to be found. Back at headquarters, the team gets to work trying to determine cause of death, and they discover something chilling. Although Handley appears to have died from having his neck slashed, they discover the underlying and true cause of death: drug-induced heart failure and de-sanguination. This mislead occurs in subsequent murders, and the TAZ crew realizes that they have a serial killer on their hands.
In the midst of TAZ trying to get a lead on the killer, we are introduced to Ward Hamilton, a pompous and flamboyant true crime writer who convinces his editor to let him write a series of articles about unsolved cases in the NYPD. Having failed at writing novels, Hamilton feels the need to redeem himself and make a comeback with the articles, which will culminate in a book. And he’s found his first subject for the project: the case of a young dancer named Melinda Cramer, whose apparent suicide was never solved by Cody and his team. Hamilton is a truly unlikable character, and as he tries to get the Cramer case file from Cody to start his research, we get glimpses into his unsavory life as a playboy that he shares with his equally unlikable lover Victoria.
When a second body turns up naked and tied to a chair, the hunt intensifies to find the killer before he or she can strike again. Along with the growing suspense and the terror of trying to stop a serial killer, Diehl introduces a love interest for Cody, a woman named Amelie who coincidentally lives in the apartment across from Handley’s. The instant attraction between the two was a nice break from the tension, and in a particularly sweet scene, Cody takes Amelie with him to the zoo in Central Park where he demonstrates his rapport with the zoo’s resident wolves.
Diehl is adept at pacing, and he manages to keep the large cast of characters under control while the action escalates toward the final showdown between Cody and the killer. There are all sorts of wonderful elements in Seven Ways to Die that give what could have been a conventional murder mystery extra depth. One of my favorites was the role that dogs and wolves played in the story. During a flashback we are introduced to Cody as a boy in the Nez Perce tribe, who is bitten by a rattlesnake while walking through the desert. Near death and hallucinating, he awakens to find a white wolf next to him, licking the venom from the snakebite. In a brilliant parallel, Charley the German shepherd saves Cody’s life by licking poison out of his wound after he is struck by a poisoned arrow.
There really isn’t anything to not like about Seven Ways to Die. I thought the dialog was first-rate, and with snappy lines like “Cody knew his goose was cooked” I was charmed from page one. There has been a bit of flap from other reviewers over the sex scene in chapter 38, which does seem to come out of nowhere. But because of the way the bodies are found, the team determines that the killer is almost certainly a sex addict, so the graphic scene didn’t really feel out-of-place to me. Diehl and Atchity also neatly tie in the title of the book, with the forensic description of the seven ways homicide victims are killed, which figures into the murders themselves. The only story element that didn’t ring true for me was the believability that the killer had the intelligence and resources to pull off the highly complicated murders, after learning the killer’s identity. But that was a small thing that really didn’t detract from the rest of the story.
It was a pleasure to read the book of a seasoned and talented writer, and the work that Atchity did to finish it off was brilliant.
Many thanks to co-author Kenneth John Atchity for supplying a review copy.