The Traveler, by John Katzenbach

The Traveler is a novel that I first read when I was in the 6th grade. While it is not recommended for 12 year olds, I appreciated the psychological depth of the characters, how Katzenbach handled the relationships between characters, and the ramifications of murderer-and-kidnapper Douglas Jeffers’ actions on his victims, his victims’ family and his own family. Doug himself is not a formulaic villain but a fully fleshed out character and, while you don’t have to agree with his choices, the details are there to understand how he could justify such choices.

There are a lot of serial killer novels and films out there; some good and some bad. A major plus for The Traveler is that it is not another one based on high profile real life cases. Some of those based on these cases are, in my judgment, really good but there is only so many times it is enjoyable to read or watch stories loosely based on these specific cases. Having been a criminal court reporter, Katzenbach would have had a lot of material to draw from in coming up with original ideas for The Traveler.

Doug is an intelligent and professionally accomplished serial killer without being a Hannibal Lecter or Ted Bundy clone (although some broad similarities could be drawn in relation to some aspects of Ted Bundy if you were looking to do it), and Merce is a determined cop acting on her own and seeking vengeance without being a stereotypical rogue cop character.

Independently of anything else, I also think The Traveler is an interesting exploration of the nature of literature, biography and photography.

I have provided a chapter-by-chapter outline below, but I recommend reading the novel itself for all the smaller details that can’t be included in such a condensed summary.

I. The Reasons Behind Detective Barren’s Obsession
1. Detective Mercedes (Merce) Barren is notified of her niece Susan’s murder and breaks the news to Susan’s parents.
2. Merce investigates the crime scene and the autopsy.
3. Merce attends the trial of captured serial killer Sadegh Rhotzbadegh for the murder of Susan, then realises it may not have been him.
II. An English Lit Major
4. Doug locates Anne Hampton, an English lit major who “has potential.”
III. Boswell
5. Doug Kidnaps Anne.
6. Anne is trained by Doug to obey him.
IV. A Regular Session of the Lost Boys
7. Martin (Marty) Jeffers takes a session of his sex-offender psychiatry group, then finds out a detective from Miami has called and wants to speak to him.
V. A Singular Pursuit
8. Merce tries to convince Lieutenant Burns from Homicide that Rhotzbadegh may not have murdered Susan.
9. Merce gets to work herself on going over the evidence again; visiting the crime scene, questioning the medical examiner at the morgue, and drinking alone in her apartment.
10. Merce questions Rhotzbadegh in prison, then investigates a press pass found at the crime scene by questioning staff at the Miami Dolphins and at the print company that provides the passes. She gets Doug’s name.
VI. An Easy Person to Kill
11. Anne is taught by Doug about being ‘his Boswell’ (an allusion to James Boswell, famous for his biography of Samuel Johnson), documenting Doug’s journey and his thoughts. Then he shows what he’s capable of by killing a homeless guy on the side of a road.
VII. Disbelief
12. Merce talks to Marty about Doug, and Marty is ambivalent about co-operating.
VIII. Other Dark Places
13. Doug tells Anne about his life.
IX. Another Regular Session of the Lost Boys
14. Marty runs another therapy session while Merce stalks him, finds a key to Doug’s apartment in his desk, goes to Dougs apartment and finds photos of his victims.
X. Many Roadside Attractions
15. Anne acts as Doug’s Boswell as he talks about his life. Doug poses as a magazine photographer and gets two women to take their clothes off in a secluded forest reserve intending to kill them but aborts when a forest ranger comes by.
XI. One Trip to New Hampshire
16. Merce ambushes Marty outside his apartment, confronting him at gunpoint with the photos from Doug’s apartment of his victims. Merce wants Marty’s help, but doesn’t want to go to the police. Marty fears she wants to kill Doug.
XII. Another Trip to New Hampshire
17. Doug gets $120,000 of emergency money out of his fraudulent bank account and they head toward Cape Cod. By now, Anne is so trained to go along with Doug’s orders that she has a chance to escape and it doesn’t occur to her to take it.
XIII. An Irregular Session of the Lost Boys
18. Marty leads a therapy session and figures out where he thinks Doug may have gone. When Marty fails to meet Merce, she questions his therapy group and finds out where he’s probably going.
XIV. No Man’s Land
19. Marty arrives at the Jeffers family’s old home, finding Doug and Anne there with the current owners held captive, and talks to his brother. Merce arrives later and attempts to shoot Doug and, while Anne manages to get hold of Doug’s gun and wound him, Doug gets the upper hand and shoots Merce. The shot is a cold-blooded action but non-fatal for Merce. Doug takes a dingy out on the water and shoots the bottom out of it, consoled by the thought that he was never caught.

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