The Playing Card Killer by Russell James

The Playing Card Killer_Russell James.jpg

Publisher: Flame Tree Press | Release Date: Feb. 14, 2019 | Pages: 288

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Playing Card Killer, Flame Tree Press’ latest release from the prolific Russell James, is a solid and engaging serial killer thriller with a supernatural twist.

Brian Sheridan suffers from a spate of mental disorders, including chronic anxiety and depression. He’s given up on the court-ordered therapy he’s been sentenced to until his 21st birthday, just a few weeks away, and has flushed the prescriptions that keep his head straight right down the toilet. Tormented by Mister Jitters, the hallucinatory form of his anxiety given shape, Brian begins seeing other, stranger things. His sleep is plagued by nightmares of women being murdered, strangled to death by a red velvet rope, a single playing card left with their bodies. This happens night after night, and then he sees the news reports. These are not merely dreams. He’s witnessing the murders through the eyes of a serial killer. Or…he could be the killer himself…

If you struggle from anxiety, I suspect you might find Sheridan pretty relatable. He just wants to be normal, but battles his mental health conditions on a daily basis. Being riddled with anxiety, his mind racing a million miles an hour from ADHD, is the normal state of affairs for him. Being on a number of prescriptions meant to balance him out makes him feel strange, slower, irregular — in short, the complete opposite of what they’re meant to do. Quitting the pills is easy, even if going cold turkey is a disastrous approach with some quite unexpected outcomes.

James does a wonderful job making Sheridan a sympathetic character, but also one who is highly unreliable. We’re never quite sure what direction the author might spin this story toward, or how far off the rails Sheridan may have gone. Given the number of mental health problems Sheridan presents, it’s entirely plausible that he could be the killer, just as the police suspect, or that being so heavily medicated dampened the natural higher-order powers of his brain that make him supernaturally gifted. That we spend much of the first half of the book guessing which way James will go kept me on my toes, looking for clues.

The downside is that The Playing Card Killer is ultimately a pretty standard serial killer story and James heavily relies on the tropes of this particular subgenre, which makes this read feel overly familiar. It hits all the expected beats, almost exactly right when you expect them to. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel or do anything particularly original or cunning with the material, it is an entertaining enough read overall, one that reminded me a bit of Dean Koontz during the latter years of his heyday (minus the cloyingly saccharine dog worship, thankfully).

Without spoiling anything, I will say that I was satisfied with the plot surrounding the serial killer even if I didn’t particularly care for the psychopath’s personality. For my tastes, he was too much of a frat-boy, but I did appreciate the way his good mood could stop on a dime and morph into something far more sinister. It’s clear there’s a lot of mental damage surrounding him, and James did a spectacular job of making me cringe during one particular instance of a captive’s torture late in the book. It may be a bit of a riff on the movie version of Misery, but was no less potent despite its familiarity.

Speaking of familiarity, I suspect that Spanish serial killer Alfredo Galán was influential on James during this story’s development. Galán, too, was known for his playing card signature, and like Brian he, too, worked as a security guard and suffered from anxiety and neurosis. That’s about where the similarities end I think, but it’s interesting to see some of the similarities and differences between the real-life Playing Card Killer and this highly fictionalized copycat killer.

The Playing Card Killer is a perfectly serviceable supernatural thriller, and James’ story was lively enough to keep me turning the pages even if I wasn’t particularly surprised by the various twists and turns the story took. It’s a solid bit of escapism, and this detour to Tampa, FL provided some welcome imaginings of sun and heat during a potent blast of Arctic cold in my region.