Originally published in 1981, Joe R. Lansdale’s Act of Love is a serial-killer thriller. A year before Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon took us into the mind of a sadistic serial killer, Lansdale was doing it, giving us chapters in the point of view of a necrophiliac, sadistic, misogynist cannibal as he terrorizes the city of Houston, Texas.
Act of Love is set in the 1980s and follows the murders committed by the Houston Hacker. The “Hacker” was given his name by a local tabloid, and he is corresponding with them, taunting the police in the manner of Jack the Ripper. The story also follows Marshall Hanson, a black detective, and Joe Clark, his trainee partner, as they investigate the killings. Hanson has a house in a suburb of Houston, a teenaged daughter and a smart, lovely wife, Rachel. In other words, he has a lot to lose.
Lansdale shines a harsh light on the dark, festering corners of the human soul. His serial killer’s hatred of women is palpable. Lansdale did some research, obviously, and a random thought of the killer’s, almost a throw-away, about how torturing cats and dogs no longer satisfied him is accurate and downright chilling.
The book follows the form of a police procedural to some extent, and Hanson, who is obsessed with stopping the killer, does some research himself, talking to the local coroner who has made an informal study of necrophilia. Very little detecting takes place, which is a shame, because Hanson seems like a smart guy and we never see him at his best.
Lansdale’s prose is sparse and simple. He evokes a southwestern mode of speech not with dialect but by the inflection and rhythm of his sentences. The city of Houston is not directly described much, but it is evoked by the highways, the smell in the air, and the way people talk.
Hanson is a strange character for an African American detective in the 1980s. He is fixated on finding the murderer and stopping him, even if this means going vigilante. Hanson came from sharecropper stock and has worked his way up to detective, but apparently this is not important to him. He never once thinks that he is risking his career, and even more surprisingly, never considers what impact his “going vigilante” would have on young black cops coming up behind him. It seems like that would be a daily worry for this man in this place and time.
In the early 1980s, Lansdale was making the transition from short story writer to novelist, and some awkwardness in plotting and pacing show here. Elements show up early in the book and are dropped without explanation. Lansdale says in the interview in the Extras Section that he wanted to show that murder was ugly, and he certainly succeeded here. The murders — and the aftermath — are so grisly that by the third one I was skimming. Well done, just very gruesome.
Towards the end, the plot requires Hanson to be both stupid and incompetent in order to work, not to mention the amazing coincidence of Hanson’s wife Rachel, menaced by the killer, suddenly remembering that she left a bag of nails and a big old hammer in their closet because she’d hung some curtains recently. Really? Nails for a curtain rod, rather than screws, and you’re just remembering now? Both of these are the mistakes of a new novelist, and disappear from Lansdale’s later work.
Subterranean Press has chosen an anatomically-incorrect human heart, pierced with various knives, for its cover. I don’t particularly like it, but it evokes the feeling and tone of the book quite well. The Extras section includes an interesting interview with Lansdale and an opening chapter from a later book with some of the same characters.
Some readers will be horrified by this book, and not in a good way. Here’s a handy screening tool: re-read my first paragraph. If the words “necrophiliac, sadistic, misogynistic cannibal” don’t make you shudder and go “Eeuuw!” then you’ll be okay with Act of Love. I’d recommend the book for Lansdale completists, but also for horror fans who liked Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs. In the 2000s, articulate, witty serial killers like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter took the stage, making us think that maybe psychopaths weren’t so bad. Joe R. Lansdale begs to differ. After you read Act of Love, you will, too.