Spectrum by Alan Jacobson
Book Review by Russell Ilg
Alan Jacobson has taken the FBI Profiler Karen Vail series to a whole new level in Spectrum (Open Road, $17.99, 438 pages). Jacobson rewinds the revered profiler back to the beginning, when Karen Vail begins her law enforcement career as a patrol officer just out of the NYPD’s academy. Her natural instincts are shown in their raw form, giving us a glimpse of what’s to come and demonstrating that she needs the kind of polishing and refinement that only years of experience and street knowledge can provide. Vail’s academy instructors see great promise in the young recruit and offer her a taste of detective work by temporarily teaming her with veteran detective sergeant Carmine Russo. Officer Vail’s first crime scene, that of a woman who has been murdered in a strange manner, not only gives Vail a taste of homicide but it sets in motion a 20 year pursuit of a serial killer who’s been terrorizing Manhattan.
The many years Jacobson spent with the FBI to learn everything he could, more so than just about any other author, enables him to know the ins and outs of FBI operations. He maintains contact with the profilers even today, some 20 years later, and this translates to the believability we’ve come to expect from an Alan Jacobson novel. In Spectrum, he takes this knowledge and research approach to New York City, where he worked closely with several NYPD chiefs, captains, detectives, and patrol officers to stage some nail-biting scenes that look at Manhattan in a way that only Jacobson can.
As Vail shoots up the ranks of the NYPD, we see the cases that shaped her and the spark that ultimately leads her to becoming the profiler we’ve ridden along with all these years (and novels). But not all goes according to plan, and adversity both in her professional and personal lives nearly derails both her career and her marriage. And of course, dogging her all this time is a serial murder case that stumps the department, and her.
When a teaching session exposes her to behavioral analysis, a different approach to police work, Vail is more than intrigued. She gets to know one of the profilers who spoke at the conference (one of the real FBI profilers that Jacobson has known for 20 years, “playing” himself in the novel), which becomes significant later in the story.
Spectrum spans forty years, as part of the novel revolves around a Greek immigrant family in Astoria, Queens, during the early seventies and eighties. Jacobson does a terrific job of historically putting us in the past as we follow the challenges and travails that plague this family. The Greek subplot dovetails not only with what’s happening in Vail’s career, but the present, when everything comes to a head in some very exciting and thrilling scenes—another Jacobson trademark.
In Spectrum, Alan Jacobson takes us back in time to the roots of Karen Vail in a way that brings more life to her not only as a cop but as a person. While we know who she is in the present day, Spectrum shows us how she got there through the events and misfortunes that made her the driven FBI agent we’ve come to know. Spectrum is rare in that it’s an excellent entry point for readers new to the Karen Vail series, but also serves as a perfect sixth installment. It’s not just one of Jacobson’s finest novels to date, but one that must have been his hardest to write. He does it so well that it has taken him to new heights as the best of the best in suspense fiction.