The Thursday Review: “Play Dead” by Richard Montanari

This week, we’re taking a break from Stephen King to dive into one of my favourite genres of book: the gory serial killer story. If it’s advertised with the words “The worst fictional killer since Hannibal Lector”, you’d better believe it piques my interest.

This time, though, I screwed up a little. I received this book from my mother and neither of us realised until after I’d read it that it’s actually the fourth book in a series. So how does Richard Montanari’s “Play Dead” (or “Badlands” as it’s known in the USA) hold up as an introduction to the series?

13a. Play Dead Cover

Image © cover artist/publisher.

Not badly. But not spectacular either.

The book is part of Montanari’s Philadelphia series about police detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano. In this particular story, a cold case murder involving a runaway called Caitlin O’Riordan leads to the discovery of more victims. As time goes by, it becomes increasingly clear that these girls are connected by a single killer trying to complete seven tricks of a depraved magic act, and time is running out…

As a writer, I have a few areas that bother me. There are several occasions when it feels like Montanari did research into something and felt he needed to put everything in there. One example that springs to mind is when he was listing all the different kinds of evidence processed in a particular unit. It didn’t feel necessary.

I also wasn’t one hundred per cent fond of a structure that jumped around in time and between various characters.

13b. Pocket Watch

Image © Yummymoon.

It made the story feel somewhat fragmented and confusing when one minute we could be with Balzano in the present and the next we were going through the entire life story of the killer’s father and the killer.

Don’t get me wrong. As a reader, I like the way it illuminates several characters and lets us into the minds of investigators and killer alike. But I think it would have worked better if it had just been the two detectives and the killer, or perhaps just the killer and Balzano. It would have given the book a tighter focus.

As a reader, I found the story compelling enough and it drew me onwards, but the further I got, the more I felt like it was starting to lose me. Perhaps it was because I’d jumped in part way through, but Byrne’s apparent psychic visions at crime scenes came entirely out of left field.

13c. Crystal Ball

Image © FeeLoona.

And without giving spoilers, the ending was just unsatisfying. Yes, it tied together all the threads of the story and explained it neatly, but it felt contrived and unrealistic. I didn’t feel like it was something that could happen in the real world.

If you like detective stories with horrible violent murders, you could do a lot worse than Montanari’s books. But if you want to get into the Byrne and Balzano stories, I’d recommend starting at the beginning. Start here and you might end up as mildly disenchanted as I was.

~ Penny

Related Post: The Thursday Review: “Misery” by Stephen King

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Images © Penny Gotch (, Liam Whear, Susan Wright and Molly Penford.

1 Comment

Filed under 2017 Posts, book reviews

One response to “The Thursday Review: “Play Dead” by Richard Montanari

  1. Pingback: The Curious Incident of Lazy Writers Not Doing Research | Penny Gotch – Writer

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