Writers are often eccentric, neurotic, even just plain weird, but they're usually harmless, at least to the world at large. Not so fictional author Michael Schiftmann: To make the jump from bare subsistence to the top of the bestseller lists, Schiftmann invents a serial killer backed by his own firsthand research. He rapes, mutilates, and murders young women, and then turns his adventures into novels. For Schiftmann, life in pathology couldn't be better: He's charming, sexually potent and strikingly handsome, and before long he becomes a best-selling author with fame, fans, and lots of money.
Such is the premise of Nashvillian Steven Womack's novel, By Blood Written (Severn House, 352 pp., $28.95). It's been five years since the Edgar-winning writer last published a thriller, and for fans wondering if life as a professor at the Watkins Film School meant he would never write fiction again, this novel is a welcome surprise. Womack's time as instructor of screenwriting is evident here: The book is divided into short, intense scenes, and the dialogue is tight and focused. When literary agent Taylor Robinson confides that she and Michael are lovers, the friend's response is telling: "Have you ever read his books? The guy's a perv. Trust me, I edit him."
Womack has not forgotten his roots as a novelist, however, and there are writerly touches throughout the book. An elderly woman reads a newspaper article about the killer, recognizes the resemblance between the murders and Schiftmann's books, and knows he was in town the night two young women were mutilated in Nashville. How? Because she went to his book signing at Davis-Kidd. There's also a nod to the protagonist of Womack's earlier series, Harry James Denton: "He knows the cops, has connections inside the department, and is very thorough. And one other good thing: for some reason or other, he's willing to work cheap."
While the novel deals with a grisly subject, Womack wisely keeps the reader a step removed from the actual killings. Most of the chapters are told through the point of view of other characters. There's only one scene where police discuss the killings in depth, and it's disturbing enough. By Blood Written is so successful as a thriller that it's not appropriate bedtime reading: You won't get much sleep when you promise yourself just one more chapter, and then one more.
Womack will sign copies of By Blood Written at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 6 p.m. May 25.
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