In the opening scene of David Rosenfelt’s new thriller, “Fade to Black,” a homeless man is attacked in an alley in Bergen, New Jersey. His attacker stomps on his head, crushing his skull. As the shadowy figure walks away, he dials 911 to report witnessing the attack and to provide the address, then throws the burner phone in the trash. The victim is taken to a nearby hospital where he soon dies.

The story jumps to New Jersey State Police officer Doug Brock, who is on the verge of returning to work. He’s been out several months on disability after being shot while disrupting a terrorist attack. He’s a hero – but can’t remember any of it, having suffered retrograde amnesia from his injuries. According to both his partner and his fiancée, the episode changed him. He’s not the impulsive risk taker, the in-your-face cop he used to be.

He has been involved in a memory recovery program with a group of others, but doesn’t think it is especially helpful. He still has large memory gaps strung over the last 10 years. Another participant meets privately with him after a session, eventually telling him he fears being guilty of killing Rita Carlisle, a 31-year-old woman, three years before. He has no memory of it, but found a scrapbook in his attic filled with clippings about the case. The woman’s body was never found. Her boyfriend, nevertheless, was convicted of the murder and sent to prison.

When Brock talks to his captain about starting back to work, he asks if he can be assigned to cold cases. Like the Rita Carlisle case. Captain Bradley is not enthused. His partner, Nate Alvarez, isn’t either. After their meeting with the captain, Alvarez questions him about his interest.

Brock asks Alvarez, ” ‘Do you think the boyfriend did it?’

“He laughs a short laugh. ‘Why don’t you ask the arresting officer?’

” ‘Who’s that?’

” ‘You.’ ”

Brock returns to work, assigned to his old duties. Before the morning gets started, he and Alvarez are called out on a homicide – a woman out jogging found a body. When they get there, the two cops discover that, actually, there isn’t a body. Just a head, obviously placed where it will be easily found. Brock takes one glance and announces he knows the victim. It was the guy in his memory recovery program who feared he might have killed Rita Carlisle.

The victim proves not to be who he said he was. He has no tale-tell traces of existence. And Brock learns that his first day attending the memory recovery program was also the victim’s first day. Brock comes to suspect that the guy wasn’t an amnesia victim. “I was the target,” Brock reasons, “but if I was the target who was targeting me?” Once the victim is identified through DNA, Brock learns that the man worked for a Las Vegas crime boss who used to do a lot of business with a New Jersey crime figure.

“Maybe we have a war going on,” Brock’s partner surmises.

Maybe. “But that’s not what we should be looking at…”

“What is?”

“Rita Carlisle.”

David Rosenfelt

Things grow ever more complicated. Brock goes to Bergen Hospital, where Carlisle worked, and interviews her boss. He learns that she was involved with negotiating prices and ordering drugs for the pharmacy.

Brock comes to believe that the Carlisle link has to do with drug diversion at the hospital. When another head shows up, this time belonging to the brother of the New Jersey crime boss, the investigation turns full-force to exploring drug handling at the hospital and the apparent growing war between East and West Coast crime lords.

In the process, both the FBI and the New Jersey police become aware that C-4 explosives have been couriered to both Las Vegas and to New Jersey. They learn that two weeks before Carlisle disappeared, her boss sent an email containing only two words: the name of the homeless man who was stomped in an alley in the opening scene, then subsequently hauled off to Bergen Hospital to die. From a wiretap, they learn that something “big” is going to happen in four days time.

Double-dealing, double-crossing and assassinations proliferate. Brock begins to think that things are not as they seem. The pace of the story gets kicked into overdrive.

Besides being terrifically talented at plotting and pacing, Rosenfelt also has a gift for developing fully dimensioned characters. Amid the darkness of the story, there is wonderful, humorous repartee between Brock and his partner. At one point, Brock asks Alvarez to help fill a gap in his memory, wanting to know how many perps he’d shot in his career. Alvarez tells him two that he knows of.

“The guys I shot … are they living?”

“They were until you shot them. Then they weren’t. Could have been a coincidence.”

Brock asks his partner if he’d ever shot anyone.

“No way. You’re the psycho nutjob, not me.”

The climax proves just what a nutjob Brock is capable of being. He reverts to his old self – an impulsive risk-taker, an in-your-face-cop who goes about things his own way, as the clock ticks down toward catastrophe.

“Fade to Black” is another spellbinder by Maine author Rosenfelt. It’s dark and sinister – but fiendishly worth the read.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. “Dream Singer” was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website:

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