“Like any performing artist, Santa…was a master of the illusion of spontaneity, of seeming to react to the events of the moment, when in fact his every look, word, gesture and movement enacted, even as it concealed, a meticulously calculated agenda.”

Dennis McCort is a learned fellow. He’s a retired college German professor, literary translator, language buff, music expert, and author of several books, ranging from A Kafkaesque Memoir tracing his own experience in psychoanalysis to a comedy, The Man Who Loved Doughnuts. The description of one of his books says he examines the theme of the coincidentia oppositorum as it is expressed in German Romanticism, Zen Buddhism, and deconstruction. Got it.

So who could have predicted his next work would be a psychological thriller about a pederastic serial killer?

Before I started, knowing this was the central theme behind McCort’s just-released Duncan (Gatekeeper Press), I dug in fearing the worst. What I got, however, was the best, thanks in part to incisive commentary about the killer like the one above.

If you’ve read enough psycho serial killer books, there’s often a commonality: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy kills girl, boy kills lots of girls. High action, grim scenes and chilling results.

In Duncan, McCort sticks to some basic tenets but deviates to subtle perfection in one area: he doesn’t play up the physical gore (for the most part), and instead focuses on intricate character development – and not just with the killer.

There’s very little mystery to the plot of Duncan – the killer, Samuel Clause, or Santa, is identified from the get-go, and he provides ample narrative to project his next victim. While he travels from city to city feeding his obsession, there are no investigators on his tail or discussion of what he has left behind. It’s on to the next one. Santa, a professed loner (versus someone who’s lonely, he likes to distinguish), sure hops around, but you don’t get the sense he is a running fugitive. You also may not find yourself cringing as his next transgression is imminent.

The mystery is not who. The mystery is why.

McCort is master of the character study, tracking Santa’s background as a youth from a troubled family in New Orleans, his affinity to jazz, which serves as his constant and his cover, and sharing with the reader his every thought along the way. As the protagonist, you feel you know Santa, how he thinks, how he reasons, what troubles him, what satisfies him. You also feel his sometimes-expressed conflict to understand who he is and tune out the heinous crimes that have come to define him.

“Santa had no friends,” writes McCort. “Not because he was unpopular… but because he studiously avoided friendship. It did not suit his purposes.”

Santa kept himself on the social radar of his music acquaintances for whom he could line up gigs around the country, “striking a delicate balance between amiability and distance. For what he wanted from them was not human interaction, and certainly not the entanglements of friendship, but the resources of location and opportunity.”

“Viewed superficially,” McCort continues, “Santa’s life was aimless, random, lonely. No family, no friends, not even a home to speak of…. The fact of the matter was, however, there was nothing aimless or random about Santa’s life. It was thoroughly organized, built around a single, monolithic drive, the need to satisfy which gave it something close to absolute force…more than powerful enough to crush any vestigial needs for human companionship.”

You get inside Santa’s head as he scouts out his next victim, maps out every detail, and even rehearses his expressions, tone and dialogue at each stage. His research of an area and its circumstances are usually flawless. After each crime, you find yourself not so much rooting for it to end and for him to get caught, but wishing he could figure out the inner forces that drive him on his quests and achieve some measure of peace and redemption without them.

Superb character development hardly stops at Santa. A key storyline is the Driscoll family in Syracuse, NY, with husband Mark, nine-year-old Nate and helper Hattie trying to cope with mother Julie’s quadriplegia following a terrible car accident. Julie is a central character, and while she can’t move physically, her thoughts are essential. McCort takes you into Julie’s inner self, to feel not only what she is experiencing in her physical condition but also to advance the plot.

Even Mark feels real, a college professor and runner-up breadwinner to Julie, whom he loves, wrestling with the emotions of a dangerous diversion. McCort also gets into the head of nine-year-old Nate with very impressive descriptions of how a child thinks and reasons, especially in moments of crisis.

And then there’s Duncan, Nate’s stuffed-toy gorilla, which finds its way from Nate’s care into the lap of Julie. Duncan represents comfort and protection for the Driscolls as much as a children’s toy can. As the worlds of the Driscolls and Santa come together, Duncan serves another role.

In Duncan, Dennis McCort has tackled a horrific overall theme but crafted such a well-written story with superb characters that you almost overlook what’s at play here. If psycho thrillers are your thing, you’ll feel right at home. If you tend to prefer more of a literary experience but ask how could that even be possible with a pederastic serial killer at its heart, ask no further and pick up this book.

Duncan is now available for purchase.

About Dennis McCort

Dennis McCort grew up in Hoboken, NJ, and writes of his experiences growing up there in the postwar industrial era before gentrification in his recently published book, A Kafkaesque Memoir: Confessions from the Analytic Couch. McCort is now retired from Syracuse University where he taught German language and literature over a long career. He has authored scholarly books on Swiss writer C.F. Meyer and on the influence of Zen on such Western writers as J.D. Salinger, R.M. Rilke and Thomas Merton. Turning to the writing of fiction in retirement, he recently completed a comic novel, The Man Who Loved Doughnuts. He recently published his second novel, Duncan.

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