John Katzenbach, I’ve long argued, is one of the more underrated/overlooked suspense writers out there. He’s had a couple of brushes with mainstream fame – two of his books, Just Cause and Hart’s War, were turned into films – and more than that, he has a strong bibliography, despite a couple of flaws that dogged him for a long time (weaknesses with dialogue, as Stephen King pointed out in On Writing, and a tendency toward iffy endings). And yet, over the years, Katzenbach has gotten better and better, turning out some genuine all-time great thrillers like The Analyst.
And now, right alongside that one can sit Red 1-2-3, a gleefully relentless, gripping psychological thriller that finds three women being pursued by a killer who calls himself “the Big Bad Wolf”. As Red 1-2-3 opens, our three targets – one a doctor, the second a former teacher spiraling out of control after a tragedy, and the third a high school student increasingly isolated from everyone around her – each get a letter in the mail informing them that the Wolf has targeted them and two other women, and that he plans on killing all three on the same day. And from there, the book hits the gas and never looks back.
Katzenbach carefully paces out his tale, alternating between the perspective of the Wolf and the three Reds, and doling out his revelations and information carefully. What unfolds is a psychological screw-turning, as the Wolf slowly ratchets up the fear in each woman’s life…but also, as the women begin to find a way to connect, and possibly fight back. It’s a gleefully entertaining chess match, with each side playing blindly against the other and hoping against hope that they’re making the right moves – and that’s before the story gets more complicated than we originally assumed, as we begin to see the Wolf for who he really is.
What makes Red 1-2-3 so engaging, apart from that wonderfully put-together plot and the perfect pacing, is the richness of all four of our main characters. Each Red feels very much like her own person, with each dealing with her own traumas, pains, fears, and reactions to this nightmare. Moreover, as Katzenbach himself points out at one point (via one of the Reds), it’s not as though they fit onto a spectrum easily, where one is fearful, one aggressive, one in the middle. Instead, the three women don’t easily categorize themselves, and it makes their efforts to fight back more complex and interesting.
And then there’s the Wolf, a serial killer who manages to not feel like another tired, brilliant Hannibal Lecter rip-off. Instead, the Wolf, we learn within the first few chapters, is a thriller writer, one who’s done his own “research” over the years. That makes him literate, yes, and intelligent, but not brilliant or omnipotent. He’s just a guy, one driven by his own needs and his own desires, and he’s fallible, in a big way. But that only makes him more interesting – far from the usual shadowy figure with a vast secret lair, we start seeing that the Wolf leads a camouflaged life, and one that requires some work on his end.
How all of those threads come together should really be experienced for yourself; suffice to say, Katzenbach has a series of twists, reveals, and nightmarish plot beats to hit, and the tension is going to rise constantly. And just when you think you know where it’s all going to go, Katzenbach gets to his ending, and upends our expectations in a fantastic way, delivering a truly fantastic ending that feels both appropriate for all of the characters, satisfying from a plot perspective, and genuinely surprising at the same time.
All in all, Red 1-2-3 is a pretty fantastic thriller, and the kind of great psychological thriller that would be a huge hit if more people knew about it. So don’t miss your chance – this is one worth checking out, and pushing onto other people. You won’t be sorry.