Caleb is living the life of a Gen X at the pinnacle of success. He owns a house in a tony district of San Francisco and has his own biochemistry research lab where he is a respected expert on poisons and pain-inducing compounds. No Budweiser on the sofa for him. He drinks Jameson and Guinness in high-end bars, until, that is, a mysterious, captivating woman sits next to him and orders a Berthe de Joux, French pour. Caleb has just had a fight, a serious one, with his girlfriend Bridget, and it has sent him on this bender, but this new woman enthralls him. He watches as chilled water is poured over sugar cubes through a slotted silver spoon into the drink. It’s French, the notorious absinthe which was banned for decades because of its mythic poisonous qualities. The woman downs the drink and disappears as quickly as she appeared. He must try the same drink and he must find her again somehow.
When he sobers up and returns to work, he is confronted with the possibility of his grant money not being renewed. For his funding he needs more data on pain, on the chemicals that are produced during extreme pain, in order to help researchers and drug companies develop better anesthetics and manage chronic pain better. While he is straining to obtain this funding, he is also helping his best friend Henry, the chief medical examiner, determine the cause of death of some recent victims who appeared to die of natural causes, but whom Henry suspects were poisoned. Caleb confirms the poisoning. Soon he is obsessed with tracking the serial killer and trying to find the ephemeral woman, a woman we later learn is named Emmeline. While this is going on, we find allusions to a dark and troubling past of Caleb’s, something Henry knows about.
I won’t spoil with any further plot details. This book is all atmospherics and they very dark indeed. It’s so noir, it’s ebony. The style is something of an acquired taste, but I acquired it quickly and became fully absorbed in the depth of the mood. Be warned: it is not for the faint of heart or queasy of stomach. Stephen King fans will soak it up. Others may find it hard to take toward the end, but if you can get yourself around a large dose of creepiness, this is the book for you.