The Madman's Tale by John Katzenbach is a gripping thriller set in the unlikely location of a mental hospital. Two of the patients, Francis Petrel and Peter the Fireman, help a driven prosecutor, Lucy Jones, to unmask the identity of a serial killer.
For various reasons the hospital administration prefers not to believe there's a killer in their midst, so the investigation occurs against a backdrop of disdain and discouragement.
Complicating matters, Peter is in the hospital for a psychiatric assessment following his role in the arson of a Church that killed a priest and injured several others, including the brother of the ward's psychologist.
The prosecutor's extra motivation is that she was attacked herself as a student, leaving a permanent scar. She becomes interested in the case after learning that a nurse killed at the hospital had been mutilated in the tell-tale manner of several other victims.
The hospital administration and police prefer to accept the obvious theory that a blood-covered manic patient was responsible.
Lucy, Francis and Peter battle looming deadlines to solve the case or get out, although in Francis' case there is no escape. He's delusional and hears voices, but otherwise is an intelligent and sensitive young man.
He closes in on the killer more quickly than the others because of his special insight as a patient and his ability to notice unusual things in an environment where unusual is expected.
Francis develops the theory that the killer is sane; that the mental hospital provides a perfect cover for him to remain undetected. He also concludes the killer is likely to pretend he's dumb, catatonic or retarded to further avoid detection.
Lucy is told by her boss on Friday to give up the case and return to work on Monday. Peter is about to be shipped out to another hospital, leaving Francis in mortal fear.
They hatch a final plan to draw out the man who's been tormenting him. Lucy changes her appearance to match that of all the other victims and sets herself up in a dangerous, solitary position on the night shift as bait to lure the psychopath.
Appropriate precautions are made, but these fail and Lucy looks into the face of death. Francis saves the day by raising an alarm and then sets off with Peter in pursuit of the killer.
The book is laced with irony and gives a fascinating insight to life in a large mental institution. Katzenbach writes with his usual skill and suspense. The setting makes this book unique and well worth reading.