Whitley Strieber | Bantam Books | 1978 | 275 pages
Investigating the shocking evisceration killing of two fellow police officers, NYPD detectives Becky Neff and George Wilson uncover the existence of a pack of legendary creatures secretly prowling the margins of the city for human victims.
Unlike the werewolves of myth, the Wolfen are not shape-shifters, but have evolved a great intelligence in parallel to human history. Understanding that exposure to humanity would be catastrophic to their existence, the pack targets the detectives in an attempt to silence their investigation. An effectively eerie early scene in the basement of a burned out building demonstrates the cunning nature of this advanced new lupine mind, when a Wolfen simulates the cry of a human baby in an attempt to lure Detective Neff away from her colleagues—and into the waiting jaws of the pack.
Other more action-oriented set pieces are less successful. A later desperate trap to ensnare Neff and Wilson, involving a wounded officer left bleeding as bait, leads to the pair escaping Central Park on a pair of commandeered scooters, with the snapping jaws of two Wolfen close behind. The point of view occasionally shifts from the detectives to the Wolfen, increasing the understanding and empathy towards the creatures, but lessening the horror of the unfolding carnage.
As the detectives struggle to uncover the evidence needed to convince their supervisors of their unbelievable hypothesis on the nature of the killings, some character development sets the foundation for a sort-of love triangle that (fortunately) never really materializes. The grizzled veteran Wilson ultimately expresses his long-repressed romantic feelings for his attractive young partner Neff, while she grows more distant from her husband Dick, a narcotics officer on the take to support the financial needs of his aging father.
Although potentially reading as an unnecessary padding, the back stories help inform the overall picture of late-seventies New York as a corrupt and crime-ridden metropolis. Unaware and indifferent to the neglected humanity living on its margins, the city exists as a hunting ground for a predator that has long lived in its abandoned and burned-out landscapes. From the South Bronx, Central Park West, the Upper East Side, and all the way downtown, the locations flesh out the city itself as a vital character.
Detective Neff, her husband, and Wilson add Dr. Ferguson, a scientist from the Museum of Natural History (who also displays an instant, shifty attraction to Becky Neff), to their trusted number, making a quartet of potential wolf food victims in the final showdown against the pack. Their growing paranoia fuels a tense surveillance plan on the frozen rooftop of Becky’s building, with Ferguson’s attempt at inter-species communication via hand signals providing a violent—but darkly humorous—punchline.
The pacing stalls a bit midway, as the detectives grapple with the realization that they are being stalked, and with alternate Wolfen point-of-view takes on the events. However, the all-out assault on Becky’s apartment that eventually follows elicits sudden shocks and visceral action, with the pack pressing to eliminate their human threats once and for all.