I’ve always loved cats, but I never knew about Havana Browns. Turns out they’re a rare breed with unusual chocolate-brown fur. It also turns out that the clues left by a certain feline owned by a serial killer whose methods are unusually sick — even by serial killer standards — can form the basis of an excellent procedural thriller.

Havana Brown (Level Best Books), the second book featuring Chicago police detective Joe Erickson by Midwestern author Lynn-Steven Johanson, is one of those stories that, at first blush, seems like it shouldn’t be as good as it is. Johanson breaks a lot of conventional thriller rules. For example, there’s a lot of telling instead of showing. The typical dramatic arcs you expect in plotlines are more like modest spikes, as relatively minor events deliver the same emotional punch as the big, climactic moments. Some key events get dismissed in a single sentence or two. 

But it works. Trust me. This story relentlessly builds as insidiously as the anger of Johanson’s funeral-director antagonist until you’re turning pages faster and faster. The secret might be how Johanson unravels the mystery with fierce commitments to radical clarity and chronological order primarily through Erickson’s eyes and also through the viewpoint of the killer.

PASSIONATE ABOUT A DISPASSIONATE HERO 

Our hero is a talented detective who keeps his emotions and issues suppressed while trying to navigate a life that includes his widowed father, an emerging love interest who leaves him uncertain and a renewed commitment to healthy eating. Along the way, the reader sort of becomes an analog to Erickson. You’ll root for him to break through while viewing the world with that same external dispassion.

As Erickson begins to investigate a serial murderer preying on young women in Chicago, the first clues are a few cat hairs. Erickson works the only decent lead he has and cleverly finds a cat expert who helps him determine that the hairs belong to the rare Havana Brown. That’s a huge break because those cat hairs match at least two of the cases. These women not only are murder victims; they’ve also been genitally mutilated, with the killer preserving the sections he carefully cuts out and puts on a wall in a hidden room. That’s another clue; he’s obviously someone who knows how to use a scalpel. 

We learn the killer’s identity early on — or at least we know the identity of someone responsible for some of the deaths (so I’m not giving anything away). As a result, Havana Brown is a cat-and-mouse procedural on both traditional and literal levels. The mystery involves how fast Erickson can find his man before more young women die. Johanson gives Joe some really difficult puzzles to solve.

A PLAYWRIGHT’S PREQUEL

Meanwhile, there’s a good parallel story involving Erickson’s inner turmoil as he deals with a lonely father with health issues in rural Iowa. “Like father, like son,” though, since a lot of his dad’s outward emotion has a hard time surfacing. Erickson also starts dating a police profiler he meets on the case and she works hard to bring him out of his shell. To feel better about himself, he starts working out and cooking for himself instead of getting fat on a fast-food cop diet. You should pay attention to his relationship with the woman at the health club who helps to shape him up. The parallel stories intersect into a somewhat-abrupt climax that offers intriguing developments, perhaps with future installments in mind.

Havana Brown is a prequel to Johanson’s first Erickson book, Rose’s Thorn, and was just awarded the 2021 Royal Dragonfly Book Award in the Mystery category. The author is also an award-winning playwright and — no surprise — he brings the strength of a playwright to the book’s best scenes, including those that take place in Northwest Iowa, where he was born and raised. Our hero Joe is from Iowa, too, and if you know the quiet rhythms and good people of the rural Midwest, you know a lot about him. He makes Havana Brown more than worth your time.

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Lynn-Steven Johanson has made a habit of reinventing himself over the years: teacher, professor, director, playwright, and now, novelist. He sees himself as continually evolving, both personally and professionally.

Rose’s Thorn, Lynn’s mystery novel, is based on a screenplay he wrote numerous years ago. Taking his wife’s suggestion, he fleshed out the story into a novel. The main character’s name, Joe Erickson, was the name of Lynn’s maternal grandfather who died eight years before Lynn was born. Lynn featured Marathon, Iowa, in Rose’s Thorn, and again in Havana Brown, because he wanted to pay homage to his hometown.