Review: The Definitive Albert J Sterne by Julie Bozza
This 2019 re-release of 2012’s The Definitive Albert J Sterne brings together the original novel along with the interweaving short stories previously published as Albert J Sterne: Future Bright, Past Imperfect. The result is over 220,000 words of crime thriller/complex love story. It’s a hefty book, but it’s dealing with some fairly hefty themes while still being an enthralling and gripping story.
The Definitive Albert J Sterne” rewards the time, though. Author Julie Bozza has crafted a book that is a slow burn and often difficult thriller which is threaded through with a slow burn and often difficult love story.
FBI forensic pathologist Albert J Sterne is a brusque perfectionist, impatient with the folly of the world yet dedicated to using his superb skills to solving crime. Intensely private and putting people offside wherever he goes, few know of the childhood trauma that has led to so many layers of walls between his actions and his feelings.
Sterne meets Special Agent Fletcher Ash in 1976 while attending a crime scene that Ash discovered by chance while walking. Ash is more charming than Sterne but he has his own awkwardness within the Bureau – an ability to intuit things about cases which could leave him open to all kinds of accusations and cynicism. Ash seems almost immune to Sterne’s brusqueness; Sterne seems to find Ash less objectionable than other people.
Thus begins a friendship and FBI partnership that leads them both onto the path of a serial killer. Over nine years, their friendship evolves into a ‘friends with benefits’ and goes through many difficulties on the way to a better understanding. They both have significant faults, but one of the greatest barriers is Albert’s ruthless capacity for shoving his feelings behind a fortress and pretending he doesn’t have them. He’ll give everything to Ash through love, except any part of his true self.
Ash is hardly the model boyfriend either, and this story primarily takes place in the 80s, when to be outed would be to lose their jobs. Ash is also obsessed with the serial killer who leaves the brutalised bodies of young men buried in the woods over several states. Frequently troubled and frustrated, Ash also has some selfish tendencies when it comes to Albert.
And then there are the skin-crawlingly vivid chapters seen through the eyes and the disturbing mind of the killer himself.
The reader knows early who is behind these deaths, but whodunnit is not the point. From start to finish, The Definitive Albert J Sterne is a psychological drama about love, trauma and death. It does go from dark into the light, but there is a lot of dark to work through first.
The writing is always clear and crisp, but the subject matter and Ash and Sterne’s never-easy relationship can be challenging as everything unfolds. I’ve said that it’s dark, and yet the core of it – Albert’s uneasiness about his love for Ash; Ash’s sometimes oblivious but ultimately utter conviction in his love for Albert – is a light of hope all the way through.
No solution comes in a hurry, but come it does, with great texture, compassion and deft understanding of human nature in a compelling thriller.
Because the story line deals with a serial killer, who gets his own chapters that give horrible but necessary insight into his state of mind, as well as descriptions of abuse, torture and violent crimes, Bozza has included a content warning in the book. This isn’t a light romance or cosy crime story – it’s gritty, often gruesome in its detail, and as excellent as it is, if the topics make you squeamish it doesn’t hurt to read that spoiler-free content warning in full.
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