It starts with a few pencil lines: the arch of a brow, the point of a chin. You read a few more paragraphs about a life turned tragically sour. Then you turn the page and stare into the desolate eyes of a killer.
The story and drawings both sprang from the hands of Jonathan Santlofer, who's visiting Oakmont's Mystery Lovers Bookshop on June 2. He didn't always use his visual-arts talent for such grim imagery. A successful abstract painter, Santlofer lost years of work in a 1989 Chicago gallery blaze. "I was making artwork," he says of his artistic mourning period in Rome, "but I was having a hard time getting back to it. So I started a novel just to keep myself from going insane." Thirteen years later he published The Death Artist, a thriller set in the world of New York fine art.
Two sequels followed. Then Santlofer's hands got extra busy. In 2007's Anatomy of Fear, he introduced readers to NYPD forensic sketch-artist Nate Rodriguez. The book included many of Santlofer's own sketches. "I try to slip inside Nate Rodriguez's skin," Santlofer says. "When he feels a need to do a drawing or see something as an image, I put it in."
Santlofer's new Rodriguez novel, The Murder Notebook (William Morrow), hits shelves this June. Once again, the author's illustrations pepper the text, ranging from the scrawled ravings of a psychotic suspect to the troubled protagonist's dream image of a falling man. Rodriguez's model of a murder victim comes to life in stages, from a bullet-holed skull to a lifelike face fleshed in clay. Watching Rodriguez's artistic and investigative mind work, in both pictures and words, is one of the pleasures of the series.
The images also lend the story verisimilitude for reader and writer. "Sometimes while I'm writing, I'll just jot down on a piece of paper a terrible little sketch of an idea," Santlofer says, by phone from his home in New York. "I'll make that sketch just as a way to see something. It concretizes something, it makes it real for a moment."
Santlofer has always grappled with the slippage between reality and illusion. "Early on as a painter, [I] was very interested in what you see -- is it real or not? The arts are not real. They assume a kind of super-reality." Nevertheless, Santlofer grounds his latest novel squarely in research; The Murder Notebook closes with a four-page appendix on government-sponsored human medical experimentation, post-traumatic stress disorder, Gulf War syndrome and the Fort Bragg murders.
Santlofer says he yearns to try his hand at graphic novels someday. But for now he's happy to let his words do the talking -- mostly.
Jonathan Santlofer 7:30 p.m. Mon., June 2. Mystery Lovers Bookshop, 514 Allegheny River Boulevard, Oakmont. Free. Call ahead at 412-828-4877 or www.mysterylovers.com