Zoe McCabe has died for the last time as Desdemona in the final performance of Shakespeare’s Othello in a small off-Broadway theater in the opening of James Hayman’s “A Fatal Obsession,” the latest installment in his McCabe-Savage thriller series. The young actress is radiant with hope, told it’s likely she’ll be asked to reprise her role when the production is moved uptown to Lincoln Center. On her walk back to her apartment, she encounters an apparent fan who saw the performance. Suspicious at first, she warms to him as he praises her. At the door to her apartment, as she prepares to tell him goodnight, he shoves her inside, chokes, binds and gags her.

Detective Sgt. Michael McCabe and his partner, Detective Maggie Savage, of the Portland, Maine, Police Department arrive in New York City the same night, summoned by his brother, Zoe’s father, with word that their demented mother has taken a terrible fall and isn’t expected to live. Savage has insisted on coming with McCabe, as only earlier that evening he had asked her to marry him, and she wants to honor her new obligation as almost-family. None are yet aware of Zoe’s fate.

Drugged and rolled in a rug, Zoe becomes conscious in the back of a van as it rolls down the highway. She freaks, recalling recent headlines about a so-called Star-Struck Strangler who has already killed two young performers, with another apparent victim still missing.

She forces herself to think. How to escape that fate of these others – ironically, the same fate of Desdemona who is suffocated at the end of Othello? Her best option, she reasons, is to play the role of her life, defying Shakespeare, convincing her captor she truly loves him.

The first act ends badly when they arrive in the middle of the night at a remote, sprawling country estate, and the kidnapper attempts to remove the gag from her mouth. Zoe responds instinctively, biting down and grinding her teeth into his thumb. Enraged, her kidnapper beats her. The young actress accedes to his control.

“It took all of her acting skills to model her face into the expression of abject surrender she’d so recently performed on stage.” She realizes the worst thing she could do is show fear. “She wondered if she could make him genuinely fall in love with her. Make him not want to live without her. And fool him into thinking that she loved him back.”

Tyler Bradshaw, Zoe’s kidnapper, lives with his younger brother, Tucker, who is not entirely there mentally, on their late parents’ 100-acre estate in Connecticut. Bradshaw isn’t all there either, as he suffers terrible fits of uncontrollable rage caused by a head injury inflicted by his father when he was young. Big, handsome, intelligent, his desires in life thwarted, Bradshaw most wants what he has never had – somebody who loves him. Zoe doubles-down on ratcheting up her performance to win him over. Back and forth – a rape in the shower that she finesses into a convincing performance of love; then later, a violence-infused rape that pushes her out of her role.

When the McCabe family learns that Zoe is missing, Michael McCabe reaches out to his old NYPD partner to plead that he and Savage be allowed to join the investigation into Zoe’s disappearance. The novel shifts between the terrible ordeal that Zoe endures and the detailed piecing together of clues that Detective McCabe hopes will lead them to the Star-Struck Strangler.

Maine author James Hayman has a most creative mind, and has shown his deft plotting prowess in earlier books, including “The Girl on the Bridge” and “The Girl in the Glass.” He sets a greater challenge for himself with the storyline of “A Fatal Obsession,” making it a psychological battle between a wily, talented young actress seeking to convince a devastatingly damaged antagonist — despite his sexual and physical abuse of her — that he is worthy of being loved.

Hayman establishes an extremely high bar for the main character he has chartered to carry his story. It’s a bar he doesn’t quite reach. The final punch of the book is also weakened on the last page by inserting a moral on a theme that was played too subtly throughout.

“A Fatal Obsession” is an ambitious book, showcasing the author’s reach in terms of original concept, but it isn’t as fine-tuned as his previous works.

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,” and was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize. Smith can be reached via his website: www.frankosmithstories.com.


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