Author: James Patterson & Mark Sullivan

Title: Private Games

Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.

Take Along Came a Spider and mash it up with Chariots of Fire and you'd have Private Games, the latest from the James Patterson brand of murder mystery thrillers (and if you believe Patterson still writes these novels, you probably think Sara Lee is out there baking banana bread, too).

Sullivan, an Edgar Award finalist, creates a tantalizingly accurate depiction of July, 2012 London, against the backdrop of the forthcoming summer Olympic games, then weaves in a delicious serial killer-type story. The result is some tasty food for thought about the nature of sports in the modern world.

Peter Knight, officer at security firm Private International, spends the novel chasing down a serial killer who's striking at high-profile victims associated with the London Olympics. He calls himself Cronus, after the Titan from Greek mythology, and his goal is to expose the corruption lurking beneath the surface of modern Olympics and restore the purity of the ancient games. Of course, since he's not exactly playing with a full deck, this means murdering the corrupt individuals, thereby punishing them for their corrupt deeds.

The novel opens with the murder of Denton Marshall, one of the two heads of the London Organizing Committee, and Cronus moves on to various other targets, including big-name athletes. Cronus is aided in his attacks by three Serbian sisters, traumatized by atrocities they witnessed in their homeland as teenagers. He's been training them to assist him in this master plan for nearly 20 years, so they're deadly assassins, as expert at carrying out these covert missions as they are at covering their tracks.  

Sullivan expertly raises our sympathies for Knight by casting him as a widower and a caring father to twin toddlers. Rather than simply a shameless sympathy grab, these biographical details take on real significance to the plot, as Sullivan weaves them into Cronus' deranged hunt.

  

As thrillers go, Private Games is a nifty piece of pacing. Cronus' strikes often achieve the blindside-type effect necessary for resonance, as they're both unexpectedly timed and the victims don't fit a common profile, so we don't know who's next on his list. He's also the right kind of villain - possessing an unwavering certainty in the rightness of his cause, with a tortured past that lends his motivations sympathy. While we don't for a second believe that what Cronus is trying to do is ethically admirable, we completely understand his position.

What makes Private Games a complicated and ultimately satisfying piece of popular fiction, however, is its underlying tone of admiration for the Olympic Games. Instead of penning yet another story which skewers and broils a sacred cow of modern life, Sullivan takes a more nuanced path. He simultaneously acknowledges the slide that has occurred in modern sport - due to the presence of corporate sponsorship, media influence, and athletic technology - and celebrates the competitive spirit of the Olympics.

The athletes he sketches - among them, Cameroonian child solder-turned-sprinter Filatri Mundaho, shot putter Paul Teeter, and aging diver Hunter Pierce, are genuinely honorable, disciplined, and selfless. Their inclusion, and the care Sullivan takes with their biography, makes them true portraits of why sports has maintained such a place of honor in ours and others' cultures.

This thread of appreciation for sport runs throughout Games, making it more than another serial killer hunt thriller. The settings are vivid, the action lively, but the thematic substance provides great fodder for consideration long after the true identity of Cronus is revealed.

*This review first published 2/29/2012