“Opening Moves” by Steven James – Reflections

Warning: This blog contains some graphic language which may disturb some readers.

Steven James is about the only fiction writer that I will read. I find his books to be fast-paced, compelling and thought provoking. In his latest book, Opening Moves, he offers a prequel in the Patrick Bowers series (The first five were done with Revell. This newest one is with Penguin.) Due to the occupation of the main character, Patrick Bowers, as a detective who specializes in catching serial killers, the novels can often be disturbing in some of their content. So much so that in Opening Moves James writes a short note to his readers which begins,

“Dear readers, I had nightmares writing this book. Some of the scenes were just too troubling for me, too real. I felt like I was staring in the face of pure evil.”

The storyline of the book is aptly described from the publisher’s website,

In The Bowers Files novels, FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers has stopped some of the most vicious serial killers ever imagined. Now, in the fifth exciting installment, author Steven James takes readers back to Bowers’s terrifying beginning.

Milwaukee, 1997. In a city reeling from the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, a series of gruesome kidnappings and mutilations draw authorities into a case like nothing they’ve ever seen. Cops think a Dahmer copycat is on the loose.

But Patrick Bowers, working as a homicide detective, suspects this is more than an ode to the infamous cannibal. When he discovers that the shocking acts reference some of the most notorious and macabre killers in our nation’s history, the investigation spirals into a nightmare of manipulation, brutality, and terror.

Wielding groundbreaking investigative techniques, Bowers must now face off with a killer who will stop at nothing to get his message out to the world. Chilling, gritty, and packed with twists and turns, Opening Moves is Steven James’s most heart-pounding novel yet.

In these novels the reader really is often “staring in the face of pure evil.” It is this element which is often so disturbing. I often found myself asking, “Can someone really be this evil?” and the answer comes back again and again—yes, they can. In Opening Moves we are confronted not only with serial killers but serial killers who also practice cannibalism. The book is fiction but it is sewn together with figures from real life: Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein (who inspired Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the character in Silence of the Lambs), and Albert Fish (who actually wrote a letter to a mother of one of his victims detailing how he killed her daughter). These men, sadly, were real and their lives are a scar on the face of humanity. After reading about them it is hard to imagine them as human and not as monsters. James describes this evolution in the mind of the killer,

“Two years ago the Maneater of the Midwest began to call himself, in his own mind, what he truly was.

A ghoul.

Of course he’d heard of ghouls before that. He knew what they were, that they killed to consume human corpses, often those dug up from graveyards, but the day when he finally began to think of himself in terms of being one, of placing himself in that category, was freeing and, in a way, like coming home.” (244)

What James describes here is the internal psyche of a ghoul and it is dark—very, very dark. But what does a ghoul actually look like when in action? James describes the killer’s first victim. The killer brings up in a conversation the 1973 plane crash in the Andes mountains (again, a real event). James continues the conversation:

“But this wasn’t the time to debate the determinants of ethical action with his date, it was actually his chance to agree with her. ‘You’re right about that,’ he said, ‘and, well, those dead people up on the slopes of that mountain in the Andes weren’t really people anymore actually. They were only meat that was going to rot eventually or just freeze and lie there indefinitely. I mean, right? And in a situation like that, what choice did the survivors really have? I mean what else could they be expected to do?’

“He watched her carefully, searched her eyes to gauge her reaction, to look for hints of what she might say, what she might be thinking. ‘So, what do you think? Could you have done it?’

‘Done it?’

‘Yes.’

‘You mean eaten someone?’

‘To survive. Yes.’

‘Well, I suppose, if I was on the brink of death, I guess I might have.’

“But really, that begged the question. How close to the brink of death does a person have to be, really, before it would be okay? How much desperation would justify cannibalism? Do you really need to be starving to death? What about famished? What about slight hungry? Or just sitting down for supper? How many hours away from death by starvation do you need to be to justify chewing off the skin or sucking the marrow out of another primate’s bones? Cultures disagree. So, really, it was a matter of societal preference. Pindar’s poem is right: custom is the lord of all. Perhaps morally untenable, but still, a philosophical position that suited the Maneater. The one wielding power. He liked this woman and decided on the spot that he would cut out and eat her intestines. She was the first one, the one he still remembered the most fondly to this day.”

This is hard to read but what does it really accomplish? James wants us to face the evil that lies in the heart of every person. No, we’re not all serial killers but the potential lies deep in the recesses of the human heart. James wants us to face the ghoul in all of us and realize that but for the grace of God I could be a killer. What separates us from Jeffrey Dahmer or Albert Fish? What is it that creates an Adolph Hitler or Auschwitz? What forms the basis of our morality? Is it custom or society? Laws may exact justice on a serial killer but only a work of God can change the human heart. James forces us to stare evil in the face in Opening Moves but the lingering question is “what are you going to do about it?”

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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