Title: The Definitive Albert J. Sterne
Author: Julie Bozza
Cover artist: José Luis Guttiérez (cover photo)
Publisher: Manifold Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: Police Procedural/Thriller/Love Story/Nostalgic (70s & 80s)
Length: Novel (171,000 words, 680 PDF pages)
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Guest review by LadyM
Review summary: Two complex and complicated men in search for a cunning serial killer. Excellent book for patient readers.
Blurb: Albert Sterne, forensics expert with the FBI, is so obnoxious on the surface that no-one bothers digging deeper. When he’s sent to Colorado to investigate what turns out to be the work of a serial killer he encounters Special Agent Fletcher Ash and they end up reluctantly joining forces to unravel the case. It’s only a matter of duty, though; it can’t be more, because Albert doesn’t do friendship — and he certainly doesn’t do love!
The Definitive Albert J. Sterne is not a mystery, although I’ve seen it labeled as such. The identity of the murderer is known pretty much from the beginning, making this novel a police procedural and a thriller. This isn’t a romance either, although a good part of the novel concentrates on the relationship between the two protagonists, but rather a love story and subtle character study. Having said all this, The Definitive Albert J. Sterne is a terrific novel, ambitious in both its scope and complexity and it is a wonder that it wasn’t picked up by some mainstream publisher. I bet the folks from Manifold Press are happy about it though.
The story is set between 1971 and 1985, a period of change for both the FBI and gay people. Although he’s gone, the shadow of Edgar J. Hoover lingers over the FBI, affecting both the agents and public perception. The outbreak of AIDS is a new and present danger. The DNA profiling is still in its infancy. Against this backdrop unfolds the search for the serial killer, organized, controlled and smart as they come, but slowly disintegrating, as well as the evolution of a relationship between two complicated, driven and very different men.
Both the investigation and relationship develop slowly over the years. It is a testament of the author’s skill that the story never gets boring. We see how the working relationship between these two people transforms into friendship and then to love. The men are so different that they practically speak different languages. Their relationship is fascinating, occasionally heartbreaking and so complex that a simple review can’t even begin to scratch the surface. Along the way, the men learn things about each other and change, but they never change completely and never completely understand each other.
To say that Albert J. Sterne is a forensic expert is an understatement. He specializes in so many fields that it would make anyone’s head spin. As Fletcher says, he would be called a genius if people could like him better. But, he is rude, arrogant, repressed and paranoid. He coldly informs his superior of his incompetency and his colleagues — of their stupidity. I alternately cringed and laughed while reading the first pages of the book. The way he loses his virginity speaks volumes. As a reader, I was bought, but his colleagues aren’t willing to look beneath the surface. Except Fletcher Ash. Unlike Albert, Fletch is charming, personable, intuitive and curious. It is his curiosity that motivates Fletcher to look beneath Albert’s unpleasant veneer as much as his intuition and empathy make him understand the murderer they are after.
Gradually, we learn of Albert’s past that damaged him so much. We see how he changes an inch at a time as well as his fears, his loyalty, dry sense of humor, pride and sensuality. There is this lovely symbolic arc that describes these changes and his grudging acceptance of some of them and refusal of others. Albert is obsessively trying over and over to get rid off the plant with blue flowers that grows wild in his garden.
He stood alone in the twilight, staring back at the blue flowers of the rogue groundcover that had infiltrated his garden. He’d fought it long enough. It was time to accept the inevitability. Albert muttered, “Let the damn thing grow.”
He should never have let the thing grow.
Interestingly enough, it is not Fletcher who falls in love first. But, it is Fletcher who gives himself completely, something Albert isn’t capable of. As Fletcher’s drive to catch the killer turns into obsession, he loses his ideals and faith in himself. His understanding of the murderer makes him recognize the capacity for evil in himself, something he is conflicted about. Unable to find the comfort he desires with Albert, he looks for it somewhere else. It was heart-wrenching to watch how these men were hurting each other, how miserable they were at times. My heart ached for them and I hoped that they would find the way to happiness. Did they? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
The investigation was realistically handled, especially considering its complexity, time span and the fact that the gadgets we all know from CSI, at this time, still belong to the realm of science fiction. The rivalries between different law enforcements, the pedestrian data searches, different investigative techniques (especially, analytical vs. intuitive), etc. were all handled well, but it’s the portrait of the murderer that stands out. John Garrett is almost a textbook example of a sociopath and represents everything we find so morbidly fascinating in serial killers. The public part of him echoed Ted Bundy with his handsome face and friendly, dependable and respectable social mask. His point of view will be disturbing to some readers, because we get to see things he does to his victims. As the story progresses, his mind and tight control are slowly starting to disintegrate. At first, I was mildly disappointed by the resolution of this story line, but upon reflection I decided this was the only possible outcome, especially considering that Fletch didn’t have any official support for his manhunt.
If you are expecting a light, fluffy read, with everything nicely tied and resolved — this book probably isn’t for you. Some things remain unanswered, especially concerning Albert’s past, his family, his former guardian and some of his sexual misgivings. Fletcher’s family also remains strictly in the background: his father, author Peter Ash, is just a voice on the phone, his idolized brother just a reference. Will the author give us a sequel? I, personally, wouldn’t mind, but all these answers aren’t necessary for this novel to be a fascinating and engrossing read. I can’t comment on the accuracy of FBI procedures and description of the cities (and the investigators follow the murderer to many places across the U.S.), because I’m not familiar with them. They seemed genuine enough. However, I’ve noticed one minor factual error. Albert and Fletcher are discussing the results of their AIDS tests in September 1984. As far as I know, the first commercial AIDS test became available in March 1985.
Finally, there are things this review couldn’t touch simply because it would be too long: the writing style that precisely reflected characters’ nature (Albert’s intellect, Fletcher’s idealism, then becoming almost lyrical when the occasion required), all the nuances of characterization, the humor, etc. This isn’t a book that you can read during your afternoon break, not just because of its length, but because it requires the reader’s entire attention. However, if you have patience and enjoy the challenge and complex characters and relationships, you will be rewarded by this gem of a novel. Highly recommended