Or as I like to call it: The Sculptor vs The Pretty Protagonist
When I pick up a piece of fiction to read, I have entered into a contract with the author; I agree to suspend my disbelief and they, in turn, tell me a good story that I can completely lose myself in. Like most contracts, there are usually benefits above and beyond the main clause—things like suspense and scares and thought-provoking commentary woven seamlessly into the tale. I think few books manage to meet all our individual requirements. Most are read once, put on the shelf and forgotten, a few are so bad we can’t even finish and then there are those special ones that we read over and over, recommend to all our friends and list as our favorites.
The Sculptor sits in the middle of the bell curve I just described. It was an easy read, had an interesting plot, and your basic expected but not unsatisfying finish. It wasn’t bad, but for me, there were just too many problems and irritants that I never found myself fully involved. The writing is fine, everyone has their motives, the action is enough to keep you turning the pages, so sure, it was a decent book. I like my psychos to be intelligent and calculating. I like when they have a purpose to their madness beyond the clichéd “I hate all women” or “I am gay but hate myself for it so I kill gays”. And I have a confession: I liked Dan Brown’s books because I am an art and a history buff so if you can weave those into your plot and make it a puzzle as well, I’m on board.
Here’s the problem with The Sculptor: Christian Bach is just too perfect to be believed. He is genius level smart, independently wealthy, has access to all the equipment he needs (without ever drawing suspicion to himself for all the stuff he must be ordering in bulk), can expertly replicate a master artist (meaning on top of all these things, he has innate/natural artistic talent), he is unnaturally strong, manages to work nonstop/around the clock for days-weeks on end while also caring for his invalid father who also requires round-the-clock care, and is apparently immune to chemical burns and explosions. If he has a flaw, it’s his ever-changing underlying motive for his killings and his years-long obsession with Dr. Cathy Hildebrandt that he quickly gets over in the end.
When we first meet The Sculptor, we’re given the impression that he is killing to make a statement to the world—to “wake them from their slumber” and his obsession with Dr. Hildebrandt stems from his belief that only she understands his genius, only she can help interpret his message. He wants the world to know her and read her book and have their eyes opened. Later, we learn that The Roma Pieta was originally planned to be his debut piece rather than the Bacchus statue he started with. (his attention to detail was so precise except, we learn, that he used the wrong marble for Bacchus because he already had the other stuff lying around for use with the Pieta. Don’t think that was lost on me, Funaro—either this guy is hardcore OCD about his work or he isn’t). The Pieta, we come to discover has this whole weird incestuous meaning for The Sculptor dating back to his childhood and relationship with his mom. So now, we are to believe that this is his true motive and Hildebrandt just happened to write a book that gave him some helpful ideas.
Do we learn these motive revelations through The Sculptor’s point of view? Sort of, but it is spelled out for us by the also perfect, unbelievably intuitive Sherlock Markham, I mean Agent Sam Markham who, using the talented but more importantly pretty Dr. Hildebrandt as a sounding board, keys in on the Sculptor’s deepest thoughts and symbolism and pretty much his entire subconscious. This is the guy they should have sent to talk to Lector in Silence of the Lambs, he thinks on the deepest level and would have caught all of Lector’s inferences (with the aid of his trusty but more importantly pretty sidekick; the lovesick Dr. Hildy—who, have I mentioned is pretty and has Korean eyes?). Basically, Dr. Hildebrandt reads passages from her book to him, sometimes even having to explain what she means and then it is Markham who extrapolates it to the killer, not Dr. Hildebrandt. In this way, he remains the star, the hero.
And so, I come to the famous and also pretty Dr. Catherine Hildebrandt. Our first description of Cathy comes from her own inner thoughts: “Although she was an attractive woman, Cathy could not deny that she had been a nerd all her life.” And thus begins a pattern for Dr. Hildy who is always pretty BUT has this one snag of also being smart. Throughout the entire book, she is presented this way through every character’s eyes. First a physical description about her level of attractiveness followed by her intellectual traits that are always presented as a kind of footnote. When we see her through the Sculptor’s eyes, he opens her book (the one he has used as his textbook for his life’s work, mind you), flips to the back jacket flap where her picture is, notices that her hair was shorter then, and thinks “looked a little heavier” and notes that perhaps it is her glasses, “yes, the black frames she wears now look much better on her than those old wire rims”. Special Agent in Charge, Bill Burrell is constantly reminded of his Korean wife when he sees Dr. Hildebrandt (no, I will not stop referring to her as Dr. Hildebrandt instead of Cathy, someone has to give her the respect that is due.).
“Turning, Burrell’s gaze fell upon a petite, attractive young woman shivering beside the Quantico profiler. He right away pegged the eyes behind the black-rimmed glasses to be Korean—same as his wife’s.”
Someone please give this academic, intelligent, expert on Michaelangelo some credit beyond her looks! My god, look at this passage and tell me what kind of image this projects? She is shivering? Petite and attractive and shivering beside THE QUANTICO PROFILER. Thank god for the big strong, non-shivering man. (who, by the way is described by his profession and not his looks in this passage). Dr. Hildebrandt, in fact is referred to as “the pretty art professor” no less than four times in the second half of the book (well beyond the initial description telling us she is attractive and one of those times it was from the point of view of a priest! But don’t take it personally, Dr. Hildebrandt, you aren’t the only professional woman objectified by her looks in this book. Our introduction to Special Agent Rachel Sullivan is “blonde, early thirties, with chiseled features that Cathy envied.” And when Markham is thinking about the death of his wife, the first picture we get of her is through the confession of her killer who recalls seeing “the pretty, twenty-six year old ‘scientist lady’”.
I’m not saying we don’t get similar descriptions of other male characters, we do. But when we do it is 1. Through Cathy’s lovesick eyes and/or mentioned once and then not referred to again and certainly not used as an adjective before their profession. We don’t read “The Muscular Sculptor” or “The handsome Agent Markham” do we? And for a professor of Dr. Hildebrandt’s esteem, who also happens to be the object of a serial killer’s obsession, her thoughts are almost always occupied by love, her worry about Markham’s reciprocated feelings for her, her worry about having to be away from him and so on. She is never focused on the task she is consulted on, she is focused on her personal life. So much so that at the beginning of Chapter twenty, two words from Markham are able to soothe her of the loss of her life’s work.
“What’s bothering you, Cathy?”…
“My life” Cathy whispered suddenly. “My whole life has been dedicated to the work of Michelangelo. And now, I’ll never be able to look at his statues, teach a class—will never be able to even think about him the same way again—I mean without thinking about…”
Cathy trailed off into a silent stream of tears…Markham reached out his hand for hers. She let him take it—felt her fingers melt into his.
“I’m sorry,” was all the FBI agent said.
But for Cathy Hildebrandt, it was enough….Cathy realized her tears had dried.
For the love of god, really? Ok, I have to move on, but I could seriously write an entire thesis on the sexism displayed in the subtext of this book. Now, those of you who know my reviews from the previous RIG know that I am a stickler for believable stories. I can only suspend my belief so far. If you put me in a world like mine with human characters, then I have certain expectations.
Funaro started this book with a killer obsessed with Dr. Cathy Hildebrandt. His entire M.O. was based on her text. He wanted her to see what he was doing, he even used her ex-husband for his second (but really most important) tableau. Then he discovers she is on to him (and of course she is, he did everything he could to get her attention, leading the reader to believe he was planning on her being around to see the murders through til the end and then likely become a victim herself.) and once he decides that she is getting close, he just determines to put a bullet in her head. Really? That’s it? Just shoot her? If I hadn’t had to read this book for this class, I probably would have shut it then and there.
Alas, I continued and stumbled upon the clichéd ending of the man being injured, the woman brutalized and chased and she almost gets away and then the killer catches up. Just when we think she is a goner, the injured man finds the strength to come in and save the day. Please, of course I wouldn’t expect Funaro to give the win to the female lead, not when she is just a “pretty art history professor”. Additionally, as a physician, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that a man who is shot several times resulting in a shattered shoulder, a punctured lung, and having a chunk out of his leg would not be crawling up the basement stairs, leaving the house, traversing the lawn, climbing the stairs to the second floor to leap down upon the bad guy!! No Way In Hell. I don’t care how much adrenaline you have in your system. You must have oxygen to make muscles work and you must have muscle to move bone. Same for Dr. Hildebrandt. She was shot with a chunk taken out of her arm. So one would assume in a petite, pretty girl, that chunk would include muscle. So how she managed to pull her now unconscious boyfriend into the van without arm muscle I don’t know.
I hated the end of this book. I wanted something more and I suspected it from someone who obviously did some major research on his idea. And if I don’t stop this review, my readers will hate me too.