SCI FICTION, August 11, 2004

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"The Key" by Ilsa J. Bick

"The Key" by Ilsa J. Bick begins with the investigation of a baby's death in Washington DC.  The body is found by a jogger in a shallow grave in a park.  What starts out as a standard police procedural turns into something that more resembles a paranormal CSI episode, reminiscent of Anita Blake but without the vampires.  Jason Saunders is a detective called to the scene.  Arcane clues–a strange tattoo on the baby's chest and an amulet under his tongue–send Jason on a probing journey that takes him to the darker corners of Kabbalah mysticism.

In addition to the inquiry, there's a subtle secondary plot. "The Key" deals with emotions both immediate and vicarious–second hand observation of the grief survivors of the WWII holocaust must feel, and the close anguish of losing a friend to suicide.  It's a potent scrutiny of what irreconciled mourning can bring a person to, or make someone capable of.  The mourning theme resonates throughout the story, making for a satisfying conclusion.

The sensory detail in "The Key" is riveting, even if oftentimes macabre. Likewise, the pacing is  excellent.  There's a fairly high gore quotient, but it's never gratuitous and never unwarranted.  Bick knows her forensics, or at the very least, she can do a damn fine impression of sounding like she does.  Her prose is crisp, with smatterings of biting humor that make you grin in a rictus of morbid amusement. I found it quite suggestive of Laurell K. Hamilton, but without the overlay of erotica. An enjoyable and absorbing read.