Things are not as they seem in David Rosenfelt’s thriller, “Heart of a Killer.”

The multi-threaded story turns on a pro bono assignment given to Jamie Wagner, a young associate lawyer at a prestigious Newark, N.J., law firm. His client: Sheryl Harrison, an attractive young woman in prison for admittedly killing her husband. He learns in their first meeting that she wants him to help her kill herself in order to give her heart to her dying daughter.

“And in this case, you need legal assistance,” he remarks.

“Less than you think,” she replies.

Actually, no.

Buried deep within this straightforward setup are layers upon layers of carefully crafted misdirection, deception and dogged investigative work on the part of Wagner and Detective John Novack, the original arresting officer who doubted Harrison’s confession at the gruesome scene six years before. Novack welcomes a second chance to right his laxity in doing a thorough investigation the first time — for being overburdened with cases and the fact that he already had a confession.

Adding complexity to the mix is a set of mysterious deaths that resulted in large insurance claims paid to nonexistent beneficiaries; an escalating series of teasing, computer-driven terrorist events seeking blood payment as they unfold; and a gallery of shadowy players with scripted roles being manipulated by a mastermind. All linking back to the death of Sheryl Harrison’s husband, Charlie. And for good measure, sparking a budding love story.

All three central characters are well-drawn and provide sharp and interesting points of contrast: the preppie Harvard lawyer; the mother of a dying girl; and the obsessive, curmudgeonly detective whose cases inhabit him. At times in the early going, tangential developments don’t seem to make sense. But slowly a pattern begins to emerge as the story shifts from being one about a woman in prison with a dying teenager to an entangled web of deception, danger and threat to all involved.

Rosenfelt, a Maine resident, masterfully navigates the complexity of the story with solid plotting and writing. What he creates is a puzzle — more a Rubik’s cube — that constantly entices the reader’s mind to attempt to properly line up all the multiple dimensions to glean the mystery before it is revealed.

Just remember: Nothing is as it seems. And though I thought the love story a bit of a stretch, I ended up accepting it as a softening touch that humanizes the harrowing trail of death and destruction around which “Heart of a Killer” turns.

 

Frank O Smith is a freelance writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.