Author: Steven James
Title: Opening Moves; The Bowers Files
Publisher: Signet Select
For Steven James, his latest book, Opening Moves, is personal in more ways than one.
In his prologue, James shares that his actual father was on convicted murderer Ted Oswald’s hit list. If Oswald hadn’t been caught when he was, what might have happened to James’ father? The possibilities are chilling, and help set the tone for why homicide detective Patrick Bowers, hero of James’ series called “The Bowers Files,” works with a definite sense of urgency against a tide of psychopaths.
Set in Milwaukee, Opening Moves isn’t just about murder, but also cannibalism and necrophilia. It chronicles several fictitious deviants as they perpetrate a sadistic fascination with torture during Wisconsin’s frigid late autumn of 1997. Somebody is hunting victims in a grotesque pastiche, or imitation, of the state’s more infamous criminals, and detective Bowers must piece together clues – literally pieces of human bodies – to find the killer, or killers.
Indeed, Wisconsin has a history of extraordinarily revolting crimes, and constant references to them help buttress a plotline reeking with credibility. Milwaukee, you’ll recall, was home to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and James incorporates prolific – and graphic – references to Dahmer and other ghastly deviants while Bowers leads us on the hunt for his city’s latest sadists. This trail includes a purveyor of macabre crime scene evidence, an engagement ring still on its owner’s finger, a handcuffed woman with both hands cut off, and a handcuffed young man dumped nude on a street corner.
James writes from alternating perspectives between Bowers, a couple of the victims, and at least one of the psychopaths, yet the story he weaves, while engrossing, is hardly entertaining. Easy to read, yes, but hardly easy reading. James’ admirable research into the demonic criminal minds of Wisconsin’s psychopaths certainly appears to validate his plot. If you’re interested in what makes the Jeffrey Dahmers of our world tick, Opening Moves seems as legitimate a literary source as any for peeking into the despicable side of humanity.
But why would we want to do that? For James, writing a book like this is personal, since his own father could have been a victim of just such a psychopath. Maybe victims of violent crimes can derive some affirmation from the nightmares James professes to have suffered while writing this book. For the rest of us, however, it all seems unnecessary.
As a professing believer in Christ, James says he writes such books to show man’s inhumanity to man. Yet do we really need such morbid fiction to tell us what we already know from reading today’s news headlines? Don’t we need reminders of Christ’s redemptive work on our behalf instead? Are we to dwell on the darkness, or the Light?
James seems to start off on a positive note, prefacing Opening Moves with a quote from the Bible. But it’s Leviticus 26, which talks about cannibalism as a punishment for Israel’s turning away from God. Throughout Opening Moves, James references other Bible passages, yet unfortunately, in ways that eventually marginalize the Holy Spirit’s power. Some of the dialog explores sin in what sounds like legitimate theological inquiry. But in the end, literally and figuratively, James’ incorporation of Gospel themes becomes just another wayward jumble of pop Christianity instead of a triumphant salvific narrative.
All sin, remember, is equally heinous in God’s eyes, whether it’s gross to us or not.
James may be an award-winning storyteller, but the moral of Opening Moves is that not killing somebody and eating their flesh makes you better than somebody who has.
That makes a provocative, legalistic story, but it’s not the Gospel story.
*This Review First Published 10/2/2012