A retired profiler plays cat & mouse with a killer from his past. Dr. Lucas 'Pop' Frank is a retired profiler who has had enough of the twists and turns of the minds of murderers and has retired to the woods where he communicates only by fax machine. He holds the grudging respect of law enforcement agencies everywhere, but primarily views the police and the FBI as ineffective bureaucracies. His daughter Lane, a homicide detective, occasionally consults him for advice on her more difficult cases.
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The first chapters of The Prettiest Feathers are narrated alternately by Sarah Sinclair and John Wolf. They meet and flirt at a bookstore where Sarah works. Wolf is looking for Henry Miller's book on Arthur Rimbaud, but the only Miller Sarah has on the shelf is Crazy Cock.
Sarah is recently divorced. Her ex-husband, Robert Sinclair, left her for his partner Lane Frank (Lucas Frank's daughter). Sarah is attractive, vulnerable, and quickly fascinated by Wolf. Her therapist is skeptical.
Wolf carries a gun, lies when it suits him, loves music, and tells us in detail about the dozens of murders he has committed (murder, he says, is his art). Wolf has only disdain for lesser killers such as Ted Bundy. He shares with us his gruesome plans for Sarah, the fulfillment of which he regards as a kind of dance.
Sarah discovers while reading at home that her book of Rimbaud's poetry was previously owned by a young woman who has since turned up dead in a local cemetery. The young woman was a customer at Sarah's shop. Her ex-husband Robert is looking for the killer. We know, but Sarah and Robert do not, that John Wolf is that very killer.
Wolf gives us a detailed account of how he came to be who he is, how he grew up, his mother and stepfather and half-sister (also named Sarah), the abuses and misbehaviors which led him to his deadly adulthood. Disguised as a courier from the British embassy, he visits Robert Sinclair at work to set his mind at ease about the mysterious “undersecretary” John Wolf with whom Robert's ex-wife has been associating. Wolf leaves Robert with a bundle of half-truths and conflicting information. Then he meets with Sarah to visit the grave of Sarah and Robert's young daughter.
The final chapter of part one alternates paragraphs between Sarah and John as they meet for the last time at Sarah's house and the dance is completed, ending in Sarah's bloody death.
Part two concerns the hunt for John Wolf, told in alternating chapters by Lane Frank and Robert Sinclair. Although Lane and Robert's romance didn't last, they have remained close friends as well as partners on the force. Robert went to Sarah's house late at night to check up on her. He found her dressed for a romantic evening, lying on the floor dead with her throat cut.
Robert hits the bottle as he tries to make sense of Wolf's complex trail of meaningless clues, including the fingerprints of medical examiner Alan Chadwick all over Sarah's house. Robert also receives a taunting voicemail from the supposed British courier, letting Robert know he had been within punching distance of the man who killed his ex-wife. Robert tracks down the home of medical examiner Chadwick and finds only a smoking crater. On his way home, confused and drunk, Robert drives off the road and lands in the hospital.
Frustrated, Lane reaches out (via fax) to her retired profiler father, Lucas Frank, while Robert busts out of the hospital and tracks down the real Alan Chadwick. Chadwick describes the murder of his fiancee, many years ago, by a man named Paul Wolf.
The FBI arrives and makes things difficult, refusing to share information and considering Lane as a prime suspect. Sarah's psychiatrist calls Lane and points her in the direction of a case he'd read about years ago, involving the young Paul Wolf. Dr Frank continues to send his insights via fax. He also provides the current address of Wolf's half-sister Sarah. Wolf's many identities begin gradually to reveal themselves via fingerprint records. It appears that all of his murders are interconnected in some obscure way, an elaborate work of art that was until now without an audience. A female FBI agent seduces Robert, to Lane's annoyance. Robert blacks out and wakes up in the hospital again with a subdural hematoma, a holdover from his car accident.
Lane begins to realize that she herself is Wolf's next target. A body turns up in her closet. Lucas Frank concludes that this killer is far more dangerous than he had thought possible, and with his daughter's life at stake he leaves his rural retreat in order to stop Wolf. Lane heads for Florida to interview sister Sarah.
Part three of The Prettiest Feathers alternates chapters in the voices of Lane and Lucas Frank.
Lucas tells us how he got into profiling and about the unfortunate effect that this career choice had on his marriage to Lane's mother. He drives to Saxon's River, VT, to the house where Wolf grew up. Frank walks around the property, building in his mind a picture of Wolf's personality. He revisits his own early life and his own violence.
The FBI insists that Lane share the information Lucas has been gathering, although it conflicts with their own theories about the murders and the murderer. Lucas says why not, so Lane and the agents set out for Vermont to meet with him. Lane and Lucas discuss Marshall McLuhan and Natural Born Killers while the FBI agents insist that the killer they are looking for is somewhere on the west coast. They advise the Franks to stay away from the investigation.
In the morning Lane finds that Lucas has risen early and gone to meet with a man they believe is Wolf, Christopher Wrenville. Lucas engages Wrenville's construction company to move a (non-existent) castle, stone by stone, to the property in Saxton's River, VT, where Wolf/Wrenville spent his childhood. Lucas shares with us his thoughts on the absence of rules in the predatory mind, how our willingness to abide by them leads us so easily into victimhood, how the only way to deal with a predator is to eliminate him. Lane arrives at the Saxton's River property just after Wrenville/Wolf and Lucas step into the basement.
Lucas interrogates Wolf, intimidating him with a few shots from a handgun. Wolf gets the better of Lucas but Lane intervenes. After a scuffle, Lucas orders Lane out of the house. She doesn't want to go but she finally runs upstairs and outside. Lucas orders Wolf into the coal bin and locks him in. Then he joins Lane. As they cross the yard, the house behind them explodes.
In the aftermath, Lucas is left out of the public eye and Lane is hailed as the cop who brought down a killer with 43 or more victims to his name. Lucas arrives back at his home in the woods to find a cryptic letter from Wolf in his mailbox. If you are reading this, he writes, then you've won. Wolf describes Sarah Sinclair as his own perfect victim, and suggests that he himself was Lucas Franks' perfect victim, implying that Frank is a killer not unlike Wolf himself but with the addition of the "liability of conscience".
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved the shifting points of view and the critique of society's rigidity and narrowness of thought.
Best scene in story:
Minor characters in The Prettiest Feathers frequently turn out to have been Wolf in disguise. I love the chilly feeling as the reader wonders about each janitor, DA's assistant, or neighbor.
Opinion about the main character:
Lucas Frank is able to view society from a distance, relates to the rest of the culture on his own terms, is not bothered in the least by what others might or might not expect of him, and yet is still a force for good.