Skip to main content

The Dead Student


The Dead Student

John Katzenbach always surprises and never disappoints. His novels often are placed in the subgenre of psychological thrillers, but he demonstrates with each new release how deep that vein is and can be. THE DEAD STUDENT, his latest work, demonstrates why he has a place on many “must-read author” lists as he sets up a chilling tale of long-simmering revenge.

Do yourself a favor and give the book some time. Katzenbach is in no hurry to set the hook into the reader, though he does surely prick the skin from the first page. The protagonist is an interesting character but not necessarily a charismatic one. His name is Timothy “Moth” Warner, and he is pursuing a PhD in History, with alcoholism an ever-present burden. Moth’s beloved Uncle Ed is a highly respected psychiatrist who is similarly afflicted and has been showing him how the work of battling addiction is done through a regular AA meeting at a church nicknamed “Redeemer One,” which provides an oasis of quiet in the madness of Miami Beach. When Ed fails to attend a meeting one evening, Moth goes to Ed’s office, only to find him dead from an apparent suicide, with gun and note in evidence.

"Katzenbach’s plot-driven narrative is such that you will want to read THE DEAD STUDENT in one sitting. The length of the book may make doing that unlikely, but surely you will try."

The death is quickly labeled as such by Susan Terry, an assistant D.A. with Miami-Dade County who herself is an addict and attends the same meeting as does/did Moth and Ed. Moth, however, is utterly convinced that his uncle did not kill himself. Even as similar doubts quietly and separately arise in Susan, Moth enlists the help of the one person who he truly believes can help him: Andrea Martine --- “Andy Candy” --- who was his high school sweetheart. As fate would have it, Andy is going through some tragedy and heartbreak of her own, and the call for help from Moth serves as at least a partial distraction from her own turmoil even as it serves as a not-always pleasant reminder of her past with Moth.

Andy, it develops, is a good choice for a helper, providing an offbeat but canny investigative sense. And as the reader learns early on, Moth is entirely correct. His uncle was the target of an enigmatic and very dangerous character who thinks of himself as “Student #5” and had been nursing a grudge against Ed and some others for decades. He so cleverly has been eliminating the objects of his wrath --- separated by time, distance and method --- that no one has detected a pattern until now.

Moth’s persistent obsession has put him, Andy and eventually Susan on Student #5’s trail. Student #5 may be psychotic, but he is brilliant, and the trio who are doggedly pursuing him have no idea who and what they are dealing with. As outclassed as they are, Moth, Andy and Susan are not without their own talents and devices. The climax of the book explodes in a series of plans that go well and otherwise, ending with, perhaps, an all-but-invisible yet brilliant nod and wink to Agatha Christie. Or maybe I’m imagining that. Regardless, it’s a great ending that sounds the subtle ring of truth.

Katzenbach toys just a bit with the classic definitions of good and evil. Student #5 is dangerous, no doubt about it. However, he performs a couple of small and simple but very important acts of kindness for two strangers. In contrast, late in the book, he utilizes a downtrodden individual to a markedly nefarious end. If Moth is not an especially interesting protagonist, he is more than balanced out by Student #5, who will keep you awake at night wondering if there is anyone from your past who is waiting and watching and biding their time to even the scales.

Katzenbach’s plot-driven narrative is such that you will want to read THE DEAD STUDENT in one sitting. The length of the book may make doing that unlikely, but surely you will try.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 9, 2015

The Dead Student
by John Katzenbach