In the quirky, fast-moving mystery “A Cop Story,” main character Henry Donovan is a high-ranking homicide investigator in the FBI’s Special Investigations Unit. The year is 1994, the tail end of an era before DNA breakthroughs and computer technology changed the way cops work.

It was a time, author Patrick J. Ouellette explains in his book’s introduction, when an investigator’s resources consisted primarily of “…hard work, decision-making ability, a gun, and a car.”

In “A Cop Story,” the case Donovan faces is anything but ordinary. A psychopath presumed to have a split personality has committed a half-dozen murders in several states. His victims are all widowed women around 60 years old. Each lived in the last house on a dead-end street, and all had lost husbands recently. The murderer’s preferred method of killing is strangulation.

As the press and TV spread news of the murder spree by a stalker they dub “the granny killer,” the public panics. But this is a tough case to crack. There are no fingerprints at most of the crime scenes. When one is detected, there’s no match anywhere.

The only consistent thing is what the perpetrator leaves at each crime scene: Hershey bar wrappers and empty bottles of expensive wine. It’s presumed that he spends as many as three days with his hapless victims before killing them.

All this would be too macabre for many readers, if not for Ouellette’s subtle humor. It’s delivered mostly in wry statements by narrator Donovan. He describes, for instance, his laid-back fellow agent, Lew, as a man “who could lose his whole family in a plane crash and be at work on time the next day.”

A key though background player in the drama is the fictional Jack Weinstock, the head of Northeastern University’s criminology department. Investigator Donovan is a Northeastern graduate and, as he tries night and day to catch the granny killer, he sometimes flies his mentor to the crime scene by helicopter, courtesy of the FBI.

In all, this is one heck of a mystery, and a sizable accomplishment for a writer’s first novel.

Like his main character, Ouellette grew up in southern Maine and enrolled in a Northeastern criminology program. Although he changed his major to economics and later became a Wall Street stockbroker, his interest in law enforcement remained strong. He interviewed more than a few police officers before writing his mystery. Cities and towns where Ouellette’s fictional killer strikes are often places the author lived in real life. That may explain in part the authenticity of setting in “A Cop Story.”

That’s not to say it’s a perfect novel. Midway through the book, Donovan meets smart and attractive Valerie. He’s smitten. As pages turn, readers get to know Valerie and entertain the possibility of a happy second marriage for Donovan. Then Valerie disappears. She isn’t murdered; she vanishes from the book.

“A Cop Story” ends with an interesting twist perhaps inspired by the early Greek tragedy of Aeschylus. It’s all very interesting. The book is a significant debut novel for Ouellette, who is back in his native state, living in Biddeford Pool.

 

Lloyd Ferriss is a writer and photographer who lives in Richmond.