The Definitive Albert J. Sterne

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!

Review:

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.”

And, later:

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

OVERALL

42 comments

  • Thanks for the wonderful review LadyM. I love this complex and meaty type of story so will be picking this one up. Probably would have gone under my radar without seeing your review here. Thanks for including that we get POV from a serial killer, as I’ve stated before this type of thing goes over better with me if I know it’s coming.

    Reply
    • Hi, Dianne! It is definitely better to know what to expect, because these parts aren’t easy to read. But, at the same time, they are mesmerizing, if you know what I mean. As for complex, this is definitely it. I hope you’ll like it as much as I did. Let me know what you think. 🙂

      Reply
  • Wow this sounds great – but long! I’ll definitely consider it for one of my holiday reads where I don’t have the pressure of other books to review.

    Reply
    • Yes, it’s a good choice because it is long and it really requires your attention and time. But, I’m confident that you’ll like it. 🙂

      Reply
  • Wave on my sony ereader it was “only” 480 pages. 😀

    I loved the book as well for all the reasons you mention ladym. Certainly recommended!

    Reply
    • Well, now, I’ll have to get the e-reader to “shrink” my long books.

      Yes, the book was great, I enjoyed it very, very much. Since this isn’t an easy book, every vote for it is important. 🙂

      Reply
    • Yeah, the PDF was still 680 pages on my Sony. 🙁 But I will say that the formatting for Manifold — narrow pages, large margins, wide sentence spacing — would probably put it closer to 500 in the formatting of some of the other pubs, but even that is still hefty.

      Reply
  • I’m tempted! But if I make it through all that angst, I need at least a HFN ending. (I prefer HEA, but I think that might be unlikely from what you’ve written here, Lady M.) Are you able to e-mail me, to give me a clue?

    Reply
    • Hi, gaycrow! I’ll say this much: I am strongly encouraging you to pick this one up. You won’t be disappointed. 😉

      Reply
      • I’m so glad you strongly encouraged! This is an amazing story, and I became fully immersed. Hard to put it down. It was gruesome in parts, but the author’s story telling is so good that I could go past that, and just enjoy the prose. Loved Fletch and Albert’s relationship. Is Albert autistic? He certainly has a difficult personality.

        Reply
        • Hey, gaycrow, I’m so happy you liked the book! I admit I was a bit worried about the gruesome parts. Albert sure is a complicated character, which is why part of me wishes a sequel, but I’m also satisfied with the book as it is. 🙂

          Reply
  • Wonderful review LadyM. You certainly chose well when you asked for this book (or should I say Lynn unloaded it on you) 😆

    The number of pages and the topic, plus the fact that part of the story is from the killer’s POV is a bit off putting. I have read many books with serial killers but the stories were never from their POVs so I’m not exactly rushing out to read this book. However, you did a masterful job on the review. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Thank you, Wave! This was really a book after my own heart. It’s not easy to read at times, yes, but I think it’s worth it. You should really try it. 🙂

      Reply
  • Your review is spot on. I loved this book so much. Usually I inhale books, but this one I read slowly and really enjoyed every word. Her writing style is so amazing and she created such brilliantly flawed characters in Fletcher and Alfred. You can really sink your teeth into this book, and I wish there were more M/M books like this. Now you’ve made me want to re-read it; good thing I’ll be on a plane tomorrow and will have lots of time. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi, Chris! I’m so glad you liked the book. Yes, this is not the book to breeze through, but it’s definitely worth rereading. We really need more books like this. Hopefully, Ms. Bozza will give us some and soon. 🙂

      Reply
  • I’m pretty sick of the cookie cutter approach to gay relationships, and I’m always looking for something that has depth and complexity. It sounds as if this might just fill the bill.

    Reply
    • Hi, Catana. These two certainly aren’t what we are used to in this publishing niche, especially Albert. I hope you’ll find the book as fascinating as I did. Let me know.

      Reply
    • Hi, Anne! Wonderful isn’t exactly the word I would use, although it certainly has wonderful moments. But, fascinating? Definitely. If you read it, let me know what you think. 🙂

      Reply
  • Aren’t you glad I handed this one off? 😉

    This author is a joy to read and I LOVED this book. Its heft allowed for a deep story and well-developed characters (the three protags were fascinating). The plot was riveting, heart-breaking and heartwarming. You beautifully put into words what this book was. It isn’t for everyone, but if you can deal with the length and can stand the gore and torture while in Garrett’s POV, it’s absolutely worth it. Excellent review.

    Reply
    • Oh, yes, very happy. And, thank you! ^^

      You know, I want more books like this one. No easy answers, no hearts and flowers (not that there is anything wrong with that). It certainly isn’t for anyone, but I was enthralled.

      Reply

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