The best mystery novels are always about more than “who did it.” They’re about the killer, what lies in the depths of the victim’s character, and what lurks in the detective’s soul. There’s a reason mysteries have stark psychological drama and dimension: They reveal what motivates people.
The Savage Kind, John Copenhaver’s new crime novel, has so many twists that most readers will conclude before the end that they have before them a Gordian knot. But this one does not need to be slashed; instead the author carefully unravels all the gnarls so that by the conclusion, the two teenage sleuths are revealed in all their brutal reality.
“What I did know was that, if I went inside, I’d be shedding the old idea of myself like an exoskeleton,” Judy, one of the teenage sleuths, thinks toward the end of the book. This theme of metamorphosis weaves throughout the novel. Judy and Philippa, the teenage protagonists, experience constant change. In fact, every central character in Savage Kind has depths not at first visible to the reader and often well concealed from themselves.
The characters are true to the book’s title, and it’s not just the murderers. Everyone is savage and filled with depths of monstrosity, especially Judy and Philippa. From the story’s start, the two are scarred teenagers apart from the crowd—Judy raised alone in an orphanage; Philippa’s mother died in childbirth. They don’t fit in with the malt-drinking, good little Baptist girls of the late 1940s who fill their Washington, D.C. high school, and they don’t want to. Both are proud outcasts who deviate from the norm in every way. Judy makes an interracial friendship with a Black waitress in pre-segregation D.C. Philippa shuns dates and cliques and prefers to fashion herself into a writer. They have no use for the humdrum, the expected, or the ladylike.
Within the story, Philippa discovers her love of true crime novels (Savage Kind owes much to the true crime genre that it ultimately transcends). Her pastime shades the book with an honesty about its characters’ psychological reality, their sexuality, and Copenhaver’s determination not to let them become little marionettes bouncing from one plot reveal to the next. This is no easy authorial feat. The action plows forward like an engine barreling on and knocking people over with every new twist. And still the characters remain luminous enough to exist independently of this action.
The story is strung together by a narrator, years after the events have taken place, using alternating diary entries from Philippa and Judy. As teenage Philippa writes: “Memory works in strange ways. You pull back the curtain on a memory, and then an entire mob comes crashing through.” Which woman writes the book? You have to read to the end to find out. But by then the reader realizes it could be either, quite satisfactorily.
The police in this novel are nearly incompetent, outdone at every turn by the two girls. But it’s not just that they have a knack for detective work. They also have skin in the game. It’s crucial for them to figure out what’s happening as the corpses pile up and as they become deeply implicated. So the story, like a true crime novel, focuses on the detectives (in this case Philippa and Judy) and their increasingly complicated and dark motives for delving into these crimes. Like many of the best mysteries, the detectives here are ambiguous at first and, by the end, as savage as the title suggests. No one in this novel is innocent. And truth does not bring light. It alters them, ages them, and ultimately cloaks them in darkness.
The Savage Kind, by John Copenhaver, is published by Pegasus Crime. $25.95. The Richmond-based author will discuss his latest thriller on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. at Solid State Books, 600 H St. NE.