With "The Dollmaker", author Amanda Stevens conjures up James Patterson and Anne Rice in this creepy gothic chiller of a novel. Making the leap from the romantic suspense yarns for which she's known to psychological suspense thriller, Stevens steers clear of the throwaway potboiler and crafts a well-constructed, multi-layered plot ripe with police corruption, child abduction, and enough creepy dolls to make one shudder at the next mention of Madame Alexander. It's John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" meets "House of Wax" - minus Paris Hilton with just a hint of John Grisham's Southern sensibilities.
Artist Claire Doucett and ex-husband Dave Creasy have never fully recovered from their heartbreak following the disappearance of their 7-year-old daughter Ruby. Seven years after the child's vanishing and presumed abduction, both are battling demons - one a loveless marriage and visions of their missing child around every corner, the other alcoholism and a failed law enforcement career. When Claire spots a portrait doll bearing an uncanny likeness to Ruby in the window of a Garden District collectibles shop, she becomes convinced that if she can trace the origins of the doll, she will finally learn the fate of their daughter. The ex-spouses wade through the baggage carousel of their past to join forces and soon embark upon a harrowing journey toward the closure they so desperately seek on many levels. Complicating matters are an unsolved murder with police cover-up implications and the titular psychopath who cuts a deadly path through the Louisiana landscape with his doll making tools.
Elements of "The Dollmaker" are reminiscent of cinematic horrors, and savvy genre fans will glimpse snippets of "Tourist Trap", "Happy Birthday to Me", "Dressed to Kill", and "Psycho". And while Stevens offers up intersexualism as a plot device that readers may initially bemoan as clichéd, she integrates the twist so well into a genuinely chilling back story that it ultimately works here. Her secondary characters are also fleshed out well enough to be integral to the story - whether on the periphery of the action or smack dab in the middle of it.
Stevens boasts a gift for rich, sensory-infused description that she is able to balance with page-turning action to precision. In "The Dollmaker", she has an acute awareness of the sights, smells, sounds, and textures of post-Katrina Louisiana - from the recovering French Quarter to the outlying bayous. Not since Anne Rice has a writer captured New Orleans in words with such skill. Stevens' knack for description extends beyond the geographical locales of the novel as she proves by imbuing the narrative with strong doses of realism. Whether depicting alcoholism or the mounting hopelessness in the days and months following the abduction of a child or the art of glass blowing, the reader is invited to step into the narrative and walk alongside the characters, making the reading experience more active than passive.
That the resolution (albeit ultimately satisfying) comes fast in relation to the buildup is but a minor criticism in what is otherwise a thrilling story. With "The Dollmaker", Amanda Stevens has fashioned a well-paced, spine-chilling tale of suspense in which the reader will find his or her chest tightening in anticipation and dread with each successive turn of the page.