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Jack's Boys by John Katzenbach - Review

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Photo of John Katzenbach

John Katzenbach

Blackstone Publishing

621 Pages (E-book) (Hardcover)


Jack's Boys Cover

What’s better (for thriller fans) or worse (for intended victims) than a serial killer? How about five serial killers in one novel, all with the same target? That’s the premise of John Katzenbach’s fascinating new thriller, Jack’s Boys. The killers, known only as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Easy, don’t hang out in a secluded hideout like the Manson family. Instead, they live all over the United States and never meet each other, except through the Internet chat room where they correspond. The author has delved into the minds of individual serial killers before, but Jack’s Boys is his most ambitious novel yet. With the characters’ interior monologues dominating the narrative, the 500+ page novel sometimes drags. Still, the views inside some twisted psyches and well-staged action sequences will lift readers past a few dull moments.

The Jack in Jack’s Boys is the infamous Whitechapel Ripper, the hero of the psychotic quintet. Years earlier, Alpha set

up a highly encrypted chat room on the dark web called Jack’s Special Place, and the others later found their way to the site. The group formed a mutual admiration and aid society, passing helpful tips on eluding capture and sharing the documentation and enjoyment of their crimes with each other. Their sense of invincibility is shattered when high school senior Connor Mitchell somehow stumbles across the chat room and misinterprets their discussions as the sort of immature braggadocio that frequently shows up on these sites. Using the handle “Socgoal02,” Connor ridicules Jack’s Boys for being silly, childish, lying braggarts. Not surprisingly, Jack’s Boys don’t appreciate the putdown. They soon learn Connor’s identity and start plans for a gruesome revenge against Connor and his girlfriend, Niki.

Jack’s Boys has two elaborate action set pieces where Connor eventually encounters Jack’s Boys. But most of the book comprises the inner monologues or online chats of the various Boys. Readers never learn their real names or detailed information about them. However, the author reveals their twisted mental processes in great detail. Sometimes too much detail. The story shifts from one killer’s point of view to another to another, sometimes repeatedly in the same chapter. They reminisce about past killings, which differ in methodology and the choice of victims. However, the author covers only their planned attacks on Connor and his family in detail. Genre fans may develop a morbid fascination with seeing the various shadings of psychopathy that motivate the five individual killers and the warped group dynamic that has developed.

Readers who get further into Jack’s Boys will realize the killers are not trained assassins. They are just five outwardly normal-appearing men with a passion for murder who succeed because their intended victims don’t realize how twisted and dangerous they are until it’s too late. They have also learned to plan well and cover their tracks to avoid forensic detection. But while the killers lack special combat skills, at least one of their intended victims doesn’t. Connor has lived with his grandparents for years, ever since his parents died. His grandfather Ross is an ex-Marine with extensive combat experience in Vietnam and a sizable personal arsenal. Connor and Niki are both high school athletes in top physical condition. Their skill sets create suspense for readers about the outcome of their eventual showdown with the killers.

While the author devotes considerable time to exploring the psyche of the killers, he also gives readers insight into Connor, his grandparents, and Niki. They all have their own mental issues. Connor may have found the online location of Jack’s Special Place, but he and Niki still do some typically stupid teenage things later that land them in trouble. Ross is still dealing with trauma arising from his Vietnam service, while Connor hasn’t gotten over the death of his parents. Grandmother Kate is an emergency room nurse, and she encounters bloodshed and death daily. At first, I thought the discussions about Kate were superfluous to the main storyline, but the author brilliantly ties her into the action.

I’ve read many serial killer novels (including one by John Katzenbach) pitting serial killers against surprisingly resourceful would-be victims. But Jack’s Boys is the first book I’ve read that turns this cat-and-mouse game into a team sport. It’s the five Boys pitted against Connor’s family, with the outcome in doubt for much of the book. The author skillfully establishes the strengths and weaknesses of both “teams” to keep the action plausible within the confines of this genre. When the action starts, the book becomes incredibly suspenseful.

A 300-page version of Jack’s Boys would have been a superb thriller. However, this book is over 500 pages long, an incredible length for this type of story. Despite the author’s skill and extensive research into criminal psychology, the killers’ repeated inner monologues sometimes become tedious. The effect is like watching a documentary about an important football game in which the cameras spend more time covering every similar practice and training session during the week leading up to the game than the game itself.

Although Jack’s Boys could have benefitted from more judicious editing, the book has little, if any, poor material. Many of the insights into the Boys’ warped thought processes, such as their adoption of coded language in their chats (like calling all police “gestapo”), are creepily fascinating. In the book’s Acknowledgements, the author credits various psychiatrists he consulted during his research for the book. That effort was worthwhile; the Boys’ bizarre musings seemed authentic… and chilling. Even at its current length, Jack’s Boys is a superb suspense thriller. You wouldn’t want to meet any of Jack’s Boys, but you will want to curl up in bed with Jack’s Boys and its colorful characters.  

NOTE: The publisher graciously provided me with a copy of this book through NetGalley. However, the decision to review the book and the contents of this review are entirely my own.

Watch the trailer for Jack's Boys:

 John Katzenbach is a U.S. author of popular fiction. Son of Nicholas Katzenbach, former United States Attorney General, John worked as a criminal court reporter for the Miami Herald and Miami News, and a featured writer for the Herald’s Tropic magazine. He is married to Madeleine Blais and they live in western Massachusetts.

He left the newspaper grind to write books, racking up 12 novels so far, psychological thrillers that have made him an international success. His first, 1982's bestselling In the Heat of the Summer, became the movie The Mean Season, filmed partially in the Herald's newsroom and starring Kurt Russell and Mariel Hemingway.

Two more of his books were made into films in the United States, 1995's Just Cause and 2002's Hart's War. A fourth book, The Wrong Man was recently made into the soon-to-be-released French film Faux Coupable.  

Buy John Katzenbach's books on Amazon:

The Analyst Cover
The Madman's Tale Cover
The Wrong Man Cover

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