A serial killer is plaguing New York City. He creeps through the disused underground infrastructure of Manhattan which (unknown to most people) connects with the basements of various retail shops, restaurants, hospitals, office buildings, etc. Once the murderer snags a victim he tattoos him/her with poison ink, resulting in an excruciatingly painful death. The tattoos contain numbers and seem to be conveying a message, but the meaning is inscrutable.
On the killer's trail is famous quadriplegic crime scene investigator (CSI) Lincoln Rhyme and his team. Rhyme's assistant, NYPD detective Amelia Sachs, trawls through crime scenes collecting evidence, which is analyzed in Rhyme's state of the art forensic laboratory. Rhyme believes this new serial killer has been inspired by a deceased serial killer, called 'The Bone Collector.'
Meanwhile, another murderer Rhyme helped apprehend, called 'The Watchmaker', has recently died in prison. Hoping to uncover 'The Watchmaker's' associates, Rhyme sends rookie cop Ron Pulaski, undercover, to see who picks up the cremation remains. At the funeral parlor the inexperienced rookie bumbles around a bit, but manages to meet a person of interest.
Wanting to learn as much as possible about tattooing Rhyme interviews an expert and gets a quick education in 'body modification', which helps the CSI profile the killer. This and other clues allow Rhyme's team to track the perp and to foil some attacks, but the killer always manages to get away. The murderer - who seems to be preternaturally clever and capable - is infuriated by this inteference and targets Rhyme and his crew.
While this is going on Amelia has an additional worry. Nineteen-year-old Pamela, a girl with a horrible childhood that Amelia took under her wing, wants to quit college and travel the world with her boyfriend Sean. Arguments over this drive a wedge between the women and distract Amelia.
The story is told in alternating sections, from the point of view of the killer and the point of view of Rhyme and his associates. The reader learns that the killer, named Billy Haven, is following instructions in a detailed manifesto and that his ultimate objective is bigger than than just killing people with poison tattoos.
The story is skillfully told, with twists I didn't anticipate. On the down side, the complexity of the scheme that drives the plot REALLY REALLY strains credulity.
I have a couple more quibbles with the Lincoln Rhyme series as a whole. First, in every book the serial killer goes after the CSI and his associates, which seems unlikely to happen in real life.
(Just as an aside, this also bothers me about Patricia Cornwell's 'Dr. Kay Scarpetta' series, where the serial killer always targets the medical examiner and her family/friends.)
Second, the Rhyme books have an 'incestuous' feel since we hear about the same serial killers time after time. Though this story is about Billy Haven (the tattooer), we also read a lot about 'The Bone Collector' and the 'The Watchmaker'. I kind of wish Jeffrey Deaver would let these guys rest in peace .
Reservations aside, the book is an exciting page turner with a wide array of interesting characters. Reading previous books in the series would be preferable, but the book works okay as a standalone. Recommended for mystery fans, especially people who enjoy the Lincoln Rhyme series.