Extreme Empathy

A detective gains supernatural powers after a tragedy in the gripping 'Cold Black Hearts'

Phoenix detective Annie O'Brien seems to be one of those people who's caught almost no breaks: She witnessed her mother's suicide as a teenager, and lost her father just after her 30th birthday.

Six pages into Jeffrey Mariotte's riveting Cold Black Hearts, a chain of events makes it clear that things aren't getting much better for the raven-haired dynamo. As she leads a group of officers—including one with whom she's been having a steamy affair—to a trailer where a suspected killer is ensconced, a bomb detonates, killing her entire team and leaving her nearly deaf.

You'd think that all the personal tragedy would have left Annie an emotional shell, yet before the bomb, she was confident, assured and obsessed with her work. But when she awakens in the hospital, she becomes an emotional wreck. She weeps. She frets. And she realizes that her new sensitivity extends beyond concern about herself: She can almost preternaturally sense the plights of others just by looking at them. Intrigued and disgusted by her new ability—which she figures is some extreme version of empathy—she quickly realizes that not only can she not work as a cop anymore; she has to get out of Phoenix. Fortunately, an old family friend who works for a justice organization hires her to go to remote Hidalgo County, N.M., where one Johnny Ortega is sitting in jail after being convicted of killing two teens. Annie's job is to prove his innocence.

Annie quickly realizes that this won't be difficult, as the police work surrounding the Ortega investigation is clearly shoddy. She begins to wonder, though: If Ortega didn't kill the teens, who did? On a visit to the crime scene, she notices that one of the teens was murdered atop a strange stone slab in the ground. Nearby, she stumbles upon an abandoned town that appears completely destroyed. Research tells her that the town, New Dominion, suffered a maddeningly vague tragedy in 1933, in which most of its population died. Haunted but curious, Annie embarks on an informal investigation. Meanwhile, she gets to know the proud, close-knit townspeople—and is drawn in particular to a handsome officer, Leo Baca.

At sudden intervals throughout the book, we are introduced to "the Impressionist," a man obsessed with death who roams around murdering people in a manner that precisely mimics that of known serial killers. The Impressionist plays a minuscule role through two-thirds of the book, but then Mariotte expertly brings him in to tie together the teenage murders, the gruesome fate of New Dominion and why, exactly, Annie O'Brien has ended up in the middle of a big murderous mess.

Mariotte, an Arizonan who's authored more than 30 novels, including the recent Missing White Girl and River Runs Red, seems to have a morbid fear of letting his pacing slip, so the book moves along at an extremely fast clip—he crams 62 chapters and an epilogue into 300 pages. This means it's almost impossible to get confused, but it can occasionally feel as though you're in stop-start traffic. This becomes all the more problematic when the book veers abruptly into the supernatural.

Annie's extremely pronounced "empathy," it turns out, is only a hint of otherworldly things to come. Her abilities, which manifest themselves early in the book, suggest that Mariotte may be running a bit out of bounds, but there's little indication that he's headed straight out of the stadium until all of a sudden—well, let's just say a couple beings join the cast from beyond the grave. By the time you arrive at the twist, you have sort of a set level of belief, which is tough to budge without warning. Furthermore, Mariotte could have achieved the same level of suspense, drama and horror without engaging a hell-spun supporting cast: Plenty of the real humans are scary enough.

You will keep reading, though. This is Mariotte's great talent: His writing hooks you, and you just have to see how things end. And Annie, much in the vein of the maverick lady investigators and interrogators that populate cable television, is sassy, interesting and smart—and not afraid to risk her reputation, her relationships or even her life to get to the bottom of something.

Cold Black Hearts isn't Mariotte's strongest outing, but with a dedicated following and a shelf's worth of books under his belt, he deserves credit for testing his—and Annie's—limits.