By Reason of Insanity by Shane StevensBy Shane Stevens (Simon & Schuster; 1979)

The greatest serial killer novel ever written, period.

BY REASON OF INSANITY was also the first such effort, setting the template for writers like Thomas Harris, John Sanford and Steve Thayer.  It’s a big, thick book centering on a hideously abused child who grows into a misogynistic psychopath and inspires a nation-wide manhunt.  There’s also a determined reporter, an expert on mass murder who becomes obsessed with taking the psycho down…and who comes to identify a little too closely with the object of his hunt.

As that synopsis indicates, this novel established the conventions of the serial killer thriller, and while certain aspects seem dated (like the fact that the term “serial killer” is never mentioned), it retains much of its considerable power.  Back in 1979 the level of sex and violence presented herein was unprecedented, and the nastiness remains strong and impacting.

The book is also compulsively readable in a way very few others can lay claim to then or now.  Author Shane Stevens is a master of style and tone, as evinced by his earlier novels GO DOWN DEAD (1966) and WAY UPTOWN IN ANOTHER WORLD (1971), both written in ghetto slang so convincing many critics thought Stevens a “black” writer (he’s not).  BY REASON OF INSANITY is narrated in a more traditional style, as a mock-historical chronicle set primarily in 1973, the year of the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.

The political subtext is very much at the forefront of this staggeringly ambitious account, whose action commences when the violently insane Thomas Bishop, interned in an insane asylum since childhood, busts out and kills a fellow inmate.  Bishop mutilates the unfortunate inmate’s face and assumes his identity, thus allowing for a largely uninterrupted cross-country killing spree as the police hunt for someone named Vincent Mungo.  Along the way a dozen or more peripheral characters are introduced, the mob gets involved, and an old controversy involving Bishop’s possible father, a petty rapist unjustly executed back in 1960, is reopened.

This is all carried off with still-unrivalled flair.  The violence is harsh, unflinching and fast–not unlike real life.  It being the first book of its kind, BY REASON OF INSANITY has a free-form structure its successors lack.  The author isn’t averse to lengthy philosophical and/or psychological digressions that, given the epic thrust, vastly enrich the story.  Stevens gets carried away at times; his efforts to tie in Richard Nixon with Bishop are gratuitous and ultimately lead nowhere.

The core of the novel, however, is rock solid, pivoting on Bishop, one of the most unforgettable fictional madmen you’ll ever encounter, and Adam Kenton, the reporter on his trail.  The two inevitably come together in a mind-scraping climactic bloodbath–plus there’s an unexpected twist in the final pages, which has the effect of turning the story on its head.

Shane Stevens was an unforgettable writer, and his brilliance was nowhere more evident than in BY REASON FOR INSANITY (it and the 1973 mob drama DEAD CITY, a hyper-violent stunner that laid the groundwork for GOODFELLAS and its ilk).  I say was because Stevens has sadly fallen silent in recent years.  The final novel to appear under his name was the espionage thriller THE ANVIL CHORUS in 1985.  From there Stevens penned two mystery novels, JERSEY TOMOATOES and HOT TICKETS, under the pseudonym J.W. Rider…and then disappeared.

With an accomplishment like BY REASON OF INSANITY under his belt I guess Stevens earned himself the right to prematurely retire.  Read it!