cover image Equation for Evil

Equation for Evil

Philip Caputo. HarperCollins Publishers, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-06-018360-8

Human savagery defies explanation in this ambitious, uneven thriller pairing a detective and a psychiatrist who try to ``solve'' a grisly mass murder/suicide in California. When chronic loser Duane Boggs opens fire on a school bus full of mostly Asian-American children, he leaves behind only carnage and his own corpse by way of explanation. Boggs's links to racist hate groups lead to speculation that his crime was racially motivated. To appease the public, authorities assign special agent Gabriel Chin of the California Department of Justice and renowned forensic psychiatrist Leander Heartwood to perform a ``psychological autopsy'' explaining the how and why of the slaughter. Soon the duo come to suspect that Boggs was the pawn of a far more devious mind-perhaps of bodybuilder/college student Mace Weathers, a compulsively neat lapsed Mormon. Caputo (DelCorso's Gallery) explores the violent crime and its aftermath from various angles: a teacher who survives the attack finds herself changed and begins handgun training; Chin grapples with repressed violence in himself as an assimilated Asian; Boggs's relatives reconstruct the sordid events that formed his character; Heartwood stealthily builds a profile of the pathological Mace. Caputo's invocation of assorted psychological theories-from neurophysiological to Freudian-to explain the evil at the heart of his tale doesn't quite persuade or clarify. His characters are complex and compelling, however, and except for the contrived climax, his storytelling is first-rate, with several clever plot surprises and a strong, suspenseful narrative. Given its volatile subject matter and urgent tone, this is likely to be Caputo's most commercially successful novel in years, and deservedly so. $75,000 ad/promo; author tour; first serial and dramatic rights: Aaron Priest. (Feb.)