I got more than I bargained for with Headhunter, the debut novel from Michael Slade (a pseudonym for several Canadian criminal lawyers, mainly one Jay Clarke). It's much more complex and wide-ranging than I'd anticipated, less cheesy, smarter and more ferocious too. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are after a brutal killer in Vancouver who decapitates women, sometimes sexually assaulting them, then places their heads on spikes... and then takes a picture of that to taunt the law with. The RCMP team is led by the haunted Robert DeClercq, a great and respected detective who retired after a tragedy involving his wife and daughter; he is now back doing what he does best. But at what price?
What feels like dozens of characters and impressive set pieces of murder and fright are crammed into the 420 pages, as well as lots of detailed forensic and surveillance science. Decades-old events feature into the narrative, some more obviously than others. Great details of Vancouver city life, of New Orleans decadence, of frigid 19th century Canadian wastes are presented in which the reader can get lost. There's a voodoo ceremony and LSD trips and whole lot of graphic S&M and mutilation. The author(s) even throw in '70s British punk rock, using the Clash's tipply classic "Jimmy Jazz" as a clue (the lines "Cut off his ears and chop off his head/Police come looking for Jimmy Jazz...").
Slade's novel is a melange of behind-the-scenes police procedural, horror fiction tropes like decapitation and voodoo ceremonies, and true-crime serial killer exposé. But Slade definitely goes for a supernatural mood in several scenes despite writing a an otherwise completely realistic, if overheated, thriller. You won't find that in James Ellroy's works, when he upped the crime-horror ante with novels like The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential; I suppose that's why Slade's books were generally found on the horror shelves. The cover of this Onyx paperback from '86 is creepy but not all that eye-catching, although I'd say the quote from the author of Psycho is apt.
Anyway, there was lots to like about Headhunter, it definitely brings the '80s horror goodies, but by about page 300 I was a bit exhausted. I didn't mind the textbook-like pages on voodooism, serial killer psychology, the cannibalism of Native American tribes, even the international drug trade (this is one of those novels that includes a bibliography). But the scale, the twists, the complexity started to wear on me. Characterization is rich in some places and quite thin in others, and that narrative that skips about had me flipping back through pages, trying to remember someone's name or some plot point I might've only skimmed. Slade has continued in cult popularity, still writing, still publishing gruesome crime thrillers, and I remember seeing lots of his books around back in the day (Ghoul from 1987 seems to be a particular favorite of horror fans). Headhunter is pretty cool indeed but be prepared for some iffy acrobatics as Slade tries to keep you guessing to the very... last... page.