"The Serpent's Kiss"
(Reviewed by Chuck Barksdale AUG 18, 2003)
"The San Diego Police Department investigates death differently than most metropolitan law enforcement agencies. As evidenced ad nauseam in movies and television series, unexplained bodies with temperatures of less than ninety degrees in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are handled by detectives working in pairs. Not so here beside Mexico and the fair Pacific. We work in teams: four detectives plus a sergeant.
The system works. San Diego boasts the highest clearance rate of any homicide department in the country. For three years running my team - Rikko Varjjan, Missy Pan, Jorge Zapata, and Freddie Burnette - posted the highest clearance rate of any in the homicide division. Why? Because we were an experiment that worked."
Susan Dahoney, a professor, author and biblical scholar contacts Moynihan to see if she can help in his investigation. Moynihan also seeks the guidance of Nick Foster and Dr. Janice Hood of the San Diego Zoo to gain a better understanding of snakes and snake handlers. Religion and snakes both play a key part of this book as Moynihan attempts, often unsuccessfully to track down the killer, with many potential suspects several of whom are guilty of something but not necessarily of murder. Sullivan does a great job of keeping the reader's interest up as Moynihan gets himself in and out of trouble several times in his attempts to find the murderer.
Since The Serpent's Kiss is the first book in a new series by Mark Sullivan, he spends a fair amount of time developing the characters that will continue in later books in this series. He spends the most time on Sergeant Moynihan and his family. Moynihan, a former professional baseball pitcher and the son of a murdered policeman, is a sometimes unorthodox and impetuous but generally successful detective. He has the support of his team, but not of his supervisor Lieutenant Frasier. Moynihan's relationship with his son is strained by a failed marriage and a job that often takes him away unexpectedly. Moynihan's ex-wife Fay and her doctor-boyfriend Walter Patterson are also key characters in Moynihan's life especially as it impacts his relationship with his son. The last members of Moynihan's family are his sister, psychiatric consultant Christina Varjjan, and his brother-in-law Detective Rikko Varjjan, who also works on Moynihan's team. These are all real and interesting characters that I'm definitely looking forward to seeing in the continuation of this series.
In the following excerpt, which occurs prior to finding the second victim, Sullivan does a great job of both introducing us to Moynihan's sister Christina as well as showing the reader how both Moynihan and Christina handle Lieutenant Frasier.
Before I could reply, there was a knock at the door and Dr. Christina Varjjan walked in. With her distracted expression, porcelain skin, long, curly red hair, and gray-linen sack dress, she looked like she had just wandered out of a Laura Ashley photo shoot. I am dark-featured like my mother. My baby sister got her Irish beauty from Dad.
Christina got Dad's built-in bullshit detector too. It's a trait she exploits to great effect in her work. For nearly a decade she has served as the chief psychiatric consultant to the San Diego District Attorney's Office. In that capacity she has interviewed thousands of criminals. The running joke is that that's the source of her attraction to Rikko: By marrying him my sister could engage in a lifelong study of the soul of a gangster who's managed to stay just inside the law. Police agencies throughout Southern California use Christina to help profile criminals when the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit is too backed up to provide timely reports.
"What's she doing here?" Frasier demanded.
"Nice to see you, too, Lieutenant," Christina said, taking a seat beside me. "Seamus thought I might help with the snake killer."
"There's no evidence of a series," Frasier protested.
"What planet are you on?" I demanded. "The whole thing stinks of a ceremony."
"Shay's right." Christina said, looking all around the table. "Look at the message alone: Joy unspeakable to be holding death in your hands. This is an ecstatic experience for him in his ecstasy. My opinion, with this guy, it's only a matter of time."
After writing five standalone mystery and suspense novels, Mark Sullivan has decided that he has a main character that he wants to continue to write about, as well as one that will interest his readers. Although Shay Moynihan (and his boss) do have a few characteristics that remind me of some famous fictional detectives, most notably Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch and John Sanford's Lucas Davenport, Sullivan has definitely created an interesting and complex character in Shay Moynihan as well as a great cast of supporting characters.
At the 2002 Mid Atlantic Mystery convention, my wife and I were fortunate to have Mark join our table for dinner. Although we were somewhat embarrassed by not knowing anything about him, Mark was very gracious and interesting in both explaining his then current book Labyrinth as well as his plans for this novel. We ended up leaving the convention with several of his books. I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet Mark Sullivan and to read his books and to recommend them on this site.
- Amazon readers rating: from 10 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Serpent's Kiss at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Fall Line (1994)
- Hard News (1995)
- The Purification Ceremony (1997)
- Ghost Dance (1999)
- Labyrinth (2002)
- Triple Cross (April 2009)
Shay Moynihan Series
- The Serpent's Kiss (August 2003)
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- The official Web site for Mark T. Sullivan with excerpts
- BookReporter.com review of Labyrinth
- Bookloons review of Labyrinth
- BookReporter.com review of The Serpent's Kiss
- MostlyFiction review of Triple Cross
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About the Author:
Mark T. Sullivan was born and raised outside of Boston, Massachusetts in the towns of Framingham and Medfield. As a child, he spent much of his free time skiing and deer hunting. He attended Hamilton College, graduating in 1980 with a BA in English. After college, he worked for the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. He returned to the US in 1982 and attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
Sullivan worked at Reuters, Ltd., as a financial correspondent covering the Chicago Commodities Markets from 1983-1984. He left to become a political reporter in Washington D.C. at a small wire service called States News Service. His role was backup reporter to the D.C. bureaus of the New York Times, Newsday and the New York Daily News. It is at this time that he entered the field of investigative reporting, breaking a series of stories about a financial scandal that almost toppled the nation's mortgage brokerage business. In 1986, Sullivan joined the San Diego Tribune as an investigative reporter. While there, he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting twice in five years.
He began writing fiction in his little spare time and soon had short stories published in various literary journals. In the winter of 1990, he took a leave from his investigative duties at the newspaper and moved to Utah and Wyoming to live among extreme skiers. That experience led to his first novel, The Fall Line. Before it was published, he quit his job with the newspaper and moved to Vermont with his young son and wife where he continued to write novels.
He now lives in Bozeman, Montana where he writes and teaches the art of Akido in which he holds a fourth degree black belt.