I’m a sucker for serial killer books, especially the really down and dirty types in which the killer is almost supernaturally intelligent and immeasurably evil. The modern prototype of this is, of course, Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs (although, one could argue, its predecessor, Red Dragon, really set the whole Hannibal Lecter express in motion), so it’s become common practice for publishers to namedrop Harris’ book any time they release a similarly themed work, whether in the description (“In the tradition of Silence of the Lambs…”) or by way of the pull quote (“The scariest thriller since Silence of the Lambs!”), despite the fact that, in most cases, said work isn’t nearly in the same league as Harris’ extraordinary (and best) novel. Gregory Funaro’s The Sculptor arrived on my desk loaded to bore with Silence of the Lambs comparisons, but here was the rare example of a book deserving of such comparisons.
In a small seaside town in Rhode Island, a promising young football star goes missing, only to resurface several months later, his remains, along with those of a small child, sculpted into a near-perfect recreation of Michelangelo’s Bacchus left in the garden of a wealthy investment banker. This is the work of The Sculptor, a techno-savvy (but only by necessity) and immensely cultured killer with a vision and a message; a message that he feels only one person will truly understand. That person is Dr. Catherine Hildebrandt, art historian, college professor, and leading authority on Michelangelo’s life and work. The Sculptor knows she will be the first person the FBI turns to upon the discovery of his first creation, and, once she’s brought into the investigation, this artist’s masterpiece will begin to take shape.
The Sculptor is the very definition of a page-turner, with wonderfully realized characters, excellent pacing, and meticulously researched subject matter (not surprising, considering that Funaro, himself, is an art historian and professor). Funaro builds suspense the old fashioned way, with neatly constructed and breezily written short chapters brimming with foreshadowing. It’s the kind of stuff you can’t put down, where you’ll be bleary-eyed at 3:00 AM promising yourself “just one more chapter”, but it’s a promise that’s nearly impossible to keep.
Some readers, especially those weaned on hardcore procedurals, may be put off by Funaro’s oftentimes very detailed descriptions and interpretations of Michelangelo’s life and work, but that’s precisely what I found so fascinating about the book. This element gives The Sculptor an edge over the typical serial killer novel in that Funaro is able to balance education with entertainment. The historical context will no doubt draw comparisons to the work of Dan Brown, but Funaro’s able to pull it off without that author’s smartypants pretense and verbosity, with the added bonus of creating characters we actually grow to care about rather than root against (I hate you, Robert Langdon!). Yes, there are a few instances where I felt I was back in art history class in college, but Hildebrandt’s observations never come off as condescending or overly-expository, and, only occasionally, slow things down a smidge. However, Funaro has no problem getting things going again in a hurry!
The Sculptor is an absorbing, thrilling, and enlightening (how often can you say that about a serial killer novel?) piece of pulp, and a fantastic debut for Gregory Funaro. If you like your thrills with a heavy dose of smarts, definitely add this one to your short list!