Kirkus Review of Combustible Punch - "An enthralling and unnerving probe into the complex mind of a murderer."


In this thriller, a desperate author agrees to write the story of an enigmatic, self-professed serial killer.

Rick Philips’ days of being a famous author may be behind him. It’s been more than a decade since he released the bestselling Shelter in Place, in which he recounts his experience as the sole survivor of a high school shooting. He now teaches writing at Dupont University. But the college’s dean implies that, if Rick doesn’t soon produce something substantial, he’ll lose his job. As it happens, Rick has already found a topic for his next book: a female serial killer. Or rather, she found him. He and Harriet Bristol Wheeler met recently at a writers’ conference, where she admitted she is a serial murderer and wants him to tell her story. He complies and begins regularly interviewing Harriet. She says she’s killed 12 individuals but insists they aren’t victims, as they were all “bad people.” To allay any doubts Rick may have, Harriet takes him to a dumped body that she later IDs. Beyond that, she’s predominantly evasive: She reveals her history but only gradually names the others she’s murdered. Rick doesn’t immediately see the danger in his frequent proximity to a serial killer. But his life has been in turmoil for years, as he drinks excessively and has nightmares of Ian Maynard Abbot, the school shooter who nearly killed him. It may not be long before Harriet, who’s both clever and unpredictable, becomes the “monster” Rick fears the most.

Peters’ (The Complete Collection of Short Stories, 2019, etc.) evenly paced novel is a riveting look at a serial killer, even if only in glimpses. Despite Harriet’s openness in detailing certain murders, she’s shrouded in mystery. Harriet isn’t her real name, and she cryptically tells Rick that, while she’s killed some, others have “just happened to die around” her. Rick also has a somewhat murky background. But this slowly comes to light through interactions with two strong female characters: Paige Turner, his first ex-wife with whom he’s still on good terms; and Samantha Taylor, a neighbor, Dupont graduate student, and potential love interest. Though Rick and Harriet often assert that she’s a cunning murderer who doesn’t fit serial killer profiles, it’s not clear how she’s eluded detection for so long. For example, most scenes show Harriet killing someone with little to no planning and no indication she took precautions to avoid leaving evidence behind. Still, Harriet is an endlessly intriguing character. Rick sometimes sees “coldness” in her eyes or lack of emotion, but she easily charms people. What she’s thinking or feeling is nearly impossible to determine, and readers may wonder how much of what she’s relaying to Rick is true. The author generates a modicum of sympathy for Harriet, who supposedly has an inoperable brain lesion and a daughter who someone took from her. Rick, meanwhile, makes a disturbing request of Harriet, which plays out in a twisty final act and open ending.

An enthralling and unnerving probe into the complex mind of a murderer.