Book Review - Save The Last Dance For Me by Judi Miller
Updated: Jul 26, 2018
A soapy serial killer thriller set in the glamorous, competitive, and deadly world of…ballet?
Well now, wasn’t that one hell of a blast from the past?! Given that I didn’t start seriously reading scary books until roughly 1988, I generally missed out on a lot of these “classics”. King and Koontz were the big draw authors at the time, and I got fully ensnared by their offerings, along with various and sundry fantasy, science fiction, and action novels. Of course, I was also very young and didn’t have a job yet, so I was beholden to whatever my mom was willing to buy for me. Funny how, all these years later, my basic book tastes really haven’t changed. Sure, I’ve added a few more genres to the reading repertoire, but when in doubt I always default back to my fabulous foursome (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and action).
Sadly, living in Utah (where fun goes to die!) makes it rather difficult to locate and acquire these old gems of a bygone era. Though we have a few decent used bookstores (emphasis on “few”), horror isn’t terribly well represented here, especially with older books. For example: there’s one store (the nearest to me) that has a horror section of maybe 4 upright bookshelves, and literally ¾ of those shelves are taken up by V.C. Andrews, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice. Seriously, those four authors make up three quarters of what that store has on offer for horror. That doesn’t leave much room for lesser known authors, and really shows the general mentality for horror books in Utah.
Thankfully, I occasionally get to travel for work, and during my latest trip (to Texas) I stumbled upon several VERY large used book stores in Dallas which had amazing selections of used horror. Of course, I had to limit my purchasing, as I only had so much space in my luggage, but I still managed to come home with a decent selection of classics, including Save The Last Dance For Me. After stumbling across a review for it somewhere on the Web, I had been determined to find a copy to add to my library. I also really wanted to find it in an actual bookstore as opposed to doing the purchase through Ebay. Not that I don’t buy books on Ebay, but for the Bargain Bin Beasts section of this site, I want to be legit and actually find these books in the bargain sections of stores. So…uh…thanks Dallas!
The Details: Save The Last Dance For Me was released by Pocket Books in 1981, and from what I can tell was author Judi Miller’s first published work. At that time, readers were still obsessing over V.C. Andrews’ runaway smash Flowers In The Attic, which is evidenced by it being mentioned not once, not twice, but THREE times with STLDFM. Once on the cover, with a blurb from V.C. Andrews herself, and then twice at the end of the book where other Pocket books are compared to Flowers (which was also published by Pocket 2 years prior). It is essentially a serial killer tale, with a madman that the press calls the Ballet Killer stalking ballerinas in 1980 NYC. The printed price, from the original 1981 publication date for the first edition, is $2.75. It is 383 pages long and features a rather cool die-cut gated cover with main character Jennifer, in her ballerina attire, being held by a somewhat frisky skeleton. I actually miss these kinds of book covers, as they were enticing in a way that most modern book covers just can’t emulate.
In a rather strange twist, aside from a few cultural references and technology mentions, this book doesn’t necessarily stand up and scream 80’s. There are quite a few modern books that actually throw more 80’s references in them than STLDFM. That said, there are a handful of glaring “you just dated yourself” moments. One of the biggest was the casual mention of Master Charge! This was before it was changed to MasterCard, back in the offline days when credit cards were swiped on manual imprinters with a solid KA-CHUNK! (when the credit cards themselves had raised characters that showed up on the carbon copy receipts). Of course, we have mentions of cassette recorders, Andy Warhol, and a decided lack of phones not attached to cables (and frequent busy signals!), but that’s really about it. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t feel nearly 40 years old, because it certainly does. There are multiple head-hops, omnipresent cigarettes (seriously, nearly everyone smokes), not-so-kosher callouts and nicknames for African Americans & Asian Americans, and the overwhelming popularity of the ballet. It all points to a radically different time. So while the book may not necessarily have the full 80’s vibe, it definitely fits within the standard storytelling patterns of the time and feels very much like an 80’s soap opera in book form. In fact, Judi Miller would go on several years after publishing STLDFM to write another serial killer thriller, set in the world of…you guessed it…daytime soap operas! Anyone want to take a stab at what the title of THAT book is!? I’ll give you three guesses, but you’ll only need one…
As with all my reviews, I will attempt to keep spoilers to a minimum. The book synopsis itself doesn’t give much away, so I’ll have to provide some additional detail to give a clearer picture. But, that said, I will do my level best to avoid mentioning any major plot points or twists.
Our main character is Jennifer North, an up-and-coming ballerina for the New York Center ballet company. She has an apartment in New York City (not terribly far from the performing arts district), an orthopedic surgeon boyfriend (Richard, or as I call him, Dr. Dick!), and is set to go on a European tour to support the triumphant return to full-length ballet productions of one Mr. Zolinsky, the Artistic Director of the ballet company, and a world-renowned ballet wunderkind. Unfortunately, Jennifer has failed to mention to Richard that she is going on this fast approaching little trans-continental trip, even though they now live together in her apartment. This initial little lie by omission essentially sets the wishy-washy tone for her character throughout the novel. And that tone is of a character that, at the end of the day, I really didn’t mind if she got strangled with her own leotard. I get it that she’s 19, impetuous & beautiful, and is smack dab in the middle of an environment that caters towards that beauty over intellect and/or compassion. An environment in which she thrives. It’s generally understood that one generally can’t be in drama or the performing arts without being a dramatic person (even if it’s just a little). But even allowing that, I simply didn’t have much invested in Jennifer. I liked that she was away from home, stretching her wings and coming into her own, and living the life she wanted. She was going to have Richard live with her no matter what her parents thought, and truly did practice hard for the ballet, and I respected those things about her character. Sadly, outside of those positives, she never really develops as a character, starting out spineless and then never sticking up for herself or fighting back when she’s in danger. Though she says she loves him, Jennifer has no idea how she really feels about Richard, yanking him this way and that emotionally. And to top it all off, her best friend and fellow ballet dancer is killed by the Ballet Killer relatively early on, and Jennifer really doesn’t seem too concerned about it. Yeah, she feels a little queasy for like a day, but when she finds out that, because of her friend’s death, her own way is being paved in the ballet company (now she has a shot at doing more solos and possibly being a principal dancer), aside from a very small twinge of guilt, she’s completely overjoyed. She talks about missing her friend, but it all just seems like window-dressing, like she’s going through the motions. I also have a hard time with entitled characters; Jennifer has her own, by all accounts, nice NYC apartment (Richard moved in later), wears contacts (not the cheapest thing in 1980/1981), and never once goes to a job. Her out-of-state parents aren’t wealthy by any means (they need Jennifer and Richard to pick them up from the airport when they fly in for a visit), so I doubt they are funding her lifestyle. Being in the corps (essentially the chorus) would pay very little (as opposed to being a principal dancer), so I just don’t understand how she does it. So yeah, while I never like it when an innocent girl is in danger/distress, there were absolutely times when I was like “dude, PLEASE kill the bitch!”.
The only other main character of note (aside from the Ballet Killer himself) is Detective Fazio. He’s a pretty upstanding guy but is constantly getting on-upped by other members of the police department. He’s part of the Ballet Killer task force, which consists of either 50 officers & detectives or…maybe 10…it’s never really clear. Either way, he’s being steamrolled by the new police captain, who is only too happy to take the spotlight away from Fazio and bask in the glory himself. Fazio initially doesn’t make much of an impression, but as the story progresses, and he is more and more convinced that the Ballet Killer is still at large, he starts to come into his own. He eventually basically begins a one-man crusade in his off hours to prove whether or not his suspicions are correct. He’s also the only character, aside from Jennifer’s boyfriend and her parents, who actually seems to care about the deaths of these ballerinas in a way that truly matters. It’s like most of the cops are just like “hmmmmm, job security, you know?”, Detective Fazio actually worries for these women and can’t just accept things at face value. He fits the grizzled cop stereotype to a T; gruff, imposing, and good at interrogations, but with a good heart beneath the rough & tumble exterior. Sadly, for all his good intentions and unwillingness to give up, he can be kind of an idiot sometimes (but only when the plot requires him to be so). Allow me to set the scene: It’s a day or so into his personal investigation into the Ballet Killer, who everyone thinks has already been caught. While following up on several leads, Fazio notices that he’s being followed by the same car throughout the night, a car driven by someone who is obviously trying to disguise themselves. This guy’s a seasoned detective, surely he’ll do something about this development, yes? No. He notes it, contemplates it for roughly 2.7 seconds, and then immediately ignores it. He makes ZERO attempt to discover who the person is. He doesn’t even attempt to lose the tail. Does he call on his police radio to other units in the area for support? Nope. Does he call the precinct to get info on the vehicle? Nope. I mean, I know he’s looking into a case that everyone thinks is already solved, but as a detective he has that freedom. So, he has no reason not to notify the precinct that he is being followed. They aren’t going to ask him what he’s up to or anything. They’ll protect their own, because that’s generally what cops do. But no, he just continues on with his business, knowing full well that he is being tailed. Like, dude, what if it’s the Ballet Killer following you?! Wouldn’t you maybe want to see what was what? Evidently, Detective Fazio does not. Sigh. Still, dumb decisions notwithstanding, Fazio is really one of the only characters in the book with redeeming qualities, so he gets a pass.
As for the Ballet Killer himself, he’s a pretty mixed bag of nuts. And I mean NUTS! His issues stem largely from an abusive and rather sick upbringing, for which we get several allusions and half-explanations, while never getting a fully clear image his troubled childhood. For the first half of the book, his identity is carefully hidden, with several possible suspects cropping up. In addition to the present events taking place as he’s doing his dirty deeds, he also has frequent traumatic flashbacks at the beginning of most chapters, though it’s difficult to tell when in the past they took place. Sometimes his age might be mentioned, but for the most part we aren’t given much context for when these events occurred. Though this was sometimes confusing, I eventually came to terms with it, especially since those interludes served to drive home the fragmented nature of his mind. Especially since it was generally something that he was seeing at the present moment that was triggering the flashbacks to his youth. His motivations area actually pretty well explored, and his unhinged nature made him one of the most interesting parts of the book. He seems to have several different disorders all rolled up into one nucking futs burrito. And let me tell you, Freud would have had a field day with the Ballet Killer. Aside from not having a father to compete with, his fixation on his mother very much fits the Oedipus complex model. In fact, the dynamic with the mother should have been explored much more deeply. Her part in the story is twisted, sad, and dangerous all smashed together, and the DEEPLY flawed relationship with her son provides some of the more interesting interactions and motivations in the book. I can’t say that the mental health and behavioral issues that cropped up were handled in any particular realistic way, but this was a time when psychology and psychiatry weren’t as accepted fields as they are now, so mental health and behavior were looked at quite differently. Of course, there’s plenty of evidence now to support the fact that many serial killers had very abnormal upbringings, including abuse, shaming, and incest, that significantly impacted who they grew up to be. But, in the 80’s, psycho killers didn’t really need a lot of scientific explanations for their insanity. We, as an audience, weren’t really asking for them.
Outside of these three main characters, the rest of the roster really doesn’t stand out. Of course there’s Jennifer’s boyfriend, Dr. Dick! He genuinely cares about Jennifer, but also smothers the shit out of her, so I can sorta see why she’s unsure of how she really feels towards him. And he is kinda whiny and pushy, hence my nickname for him. There are also some cop buddies for Fazio, some ballet acquaintances for Jennifer, and a whole assortment of random people that just pop up for plot progression, but none of them really make an impact. We barely even get to know Jennifer’s friend Heather before she ends up as another victim of the Ballet Killer’s sick obsession. Jennifer’s other friend Yuri, the principal male dancer in the New York Center ballet company, is basically a blatant stand-in for Mikhail Baryshnikov, the real-life 80’s ex-Russian ballet heartthrob who was effortlessly entrancing young girls and mothers everywhere, setting their hearts a-flutter with his poise, grace, and well-turned ankles. There are also a few red herring characters that could have been interesting and given the story a bit more depth and tension, but they aren’t explored in any satisfying way.
One of the biggest issues I had with the supporting cast however, in addition to how lifeless and uninteresting most of them were, was the fact that we head hop between them constantly. It starts out small, with only one or two hops per chapter, but by the end of the book we may head hop between seven to ten characters in the space of 10 pages. We go from Jennifer, to Richard, to Yuri, to another dancer in the company, to one of the cops, to the Ballet Killer, back to Jennifer, etc., all without any line or chapter breaks. It’s like novel whiplash, as you’ll switch from a male third-person perspective to a female third-person perspective to some random dude’s third-person perspective, requiring the brain to switch gears, abandoning a thread established with one character to pick up one from another character. It’s a writing method which has thankfully all but disappeared in modern literature. Typically, modern books don’t give readers a new person to follow until a new chapter starts, which helps immensely in keeping up with each character’s thoughts and progress in the story. It’s actually funny how, back in the 80’s/90’s, I never noticed the literary tactic of head hopping, but it definitely sticks out now. I guess we acclimate to the standards of the times.
Outside of the characters, Judi Miller seems to have done a pretty decent job of researching ballet and the various trials and tribulations that take place backstage. I’ve worked in theatre, with choreographed dance numbers and such, and honestly felt that she accurately portrayed the stress and shenanigans that go on when performers aren’t on stage. And I do remember back during the early 80’s just how popular ballet and other stage productions (Cats anyone!?) were. She also decently describes the hustle and bustle of New York in general, if in a somewhat condensed fashion. For a slice of 80’s soap-opera horror, this book actually delivers a fun and unique setup, one that very likely couldn’t be replicated today. It’s very obvious that she was writing to a very specific audience, and I am pretty sure that audience ate this one up.
But while Judi Miller gets the ballet part right, I think she stumbles a bit when it comes to the Ballet Killer task force. The cops & detectives really don’t talk or act like cops & detectives for the most part, so it’s no wonder that lovely ballerinas have been getting killed for roughly a year now. It’s actually kind of funny to see how much infighting is taking place within the ranks of the Ballet Killer task force. At one point in the story, one of the cops feigns a drunken pass out at a precinct Christmas party and then dons a disguise to spy on a different cop who is simply doing his job and being efficient. All on the orders of another cop who is away on holiday, and who would barely have had enough time repack any travel items he might have missed, let alone set up some kind of internal spy ring. Especially since this is taking place right around Christmas time in New York City, when the task force mistakenly believes they have caught their man and have been holding press conferences and a congratulatory dinner with the mayor. These officers and detectives would either be home with their families or assigned to other priority cases. Again…this is 1980 New York…right before Christmas. I’m sure there was no shortage of crazy shit going down in NYC during this timeframe!
For the horror aspects, they start out rather generic, but as the book heads towards its climax, Judi Miller really starts to pull the curtain back (zing!) and give us readers a few really creepy and icky moments. I just wish she had explored this better throughout the whole story. Gore is pretty minimal in the story; while deaths do happen, they aren’t dripping with gory details. Swearing is kept to a minimum, with only a few instances standing out in my memory. There is also only one sexy moment in the book, but it’s minor and really not explicit. It’s a shame that the sense of tension and dread wasn’t established better early on. By the time the tension ratchets up and the danger seems very real, the book is nearly over and it almost seems anticlimactic. I don’t think that mature readers will really get many scares out of this one, but younger readers might find it decently frightening. Still, if you like ballet and you like serial killer thrillers, then this really is the only book that meets both those requirements!
I have a few random observations I want to add to the review:
1. STLDFM is so very obviously set in the world of ballerinas and stage folks; every time someone talks about one of the ballerinas who was killed, the first thing anyone says is how lovely or beautiful they were. They MIGHT then mention how sweet the girl was, or how she’d never hurt anyone, but their first response EVERY time is how attractive the victim was. “It’s so sad, she was so beautiful!”
2. This book features an early case of the now ubiquitous unreliable narrator storytelling device, in which the main character keeps thinking about serious events that have been occurring for the past year and are causing her distress, but we aren’t initially allowed to know what those events were (though it’s pretty evident regardless). It doesn’t take long to get revealed, but why the hush-hush build up? The stakes should have been set from the beginning, so we truly understood Jennifer’s sense of dread. But it’s just glossed over for so long that it never really has the initial impact it should have. We also get a significant piece of information about the killer, but only near the end, even though it’s very likely that it would have been noticed or mentioned before, especially by Jennifer. But somehow this vital piece of information about the killer just gets overlooked, even by the Ballet Killer himself during the his day to day rituals. Given the clues, it makes a certain sort of sense what the reveal is, but the omission from the tale up until nearly the end just felt too convenient. The fact that he never thinks about it until the plot requires him to do so was rather frustrating.
3. The casual racism is annoying as hell. We get plenty of stuff like “A tall, well dressed black…”, or like “Occasionally, one would shoot him an Oriental glance of support and encouragement.” Sigh. I know that societal norms were different back then, but it still made me grit my teeth.
4. There’s a part in the book where the police are investigating other members of the ballet company, including the piano player, Max. At one point, Detective Fazio stops to grab Max’s file. You know, Max…a guy they’ve never looked at up until that moment. And I’m like, “Max Forrest has a file? Back in 1980?” Unless he was in trouble with the law, I’m not entirely sure what kind of “file” an officer could just arbitrarily dig up about a guy. The police department didn’t even have computers yet, much less a physical file on record for every citizen in their district. Especially in NYC. The only way he’d have had a file is if he had a criminal record, which he doesn’t. So needless to say, I found it rather odd that Detective Fazio just randomly pulls a file on a guy.
5. Oh, and one of the detectives actually says the following little gem, regarding someone who is missing: “She could have been daydreaming and accidentally been hit by a car. She could have fainted in the street or lost her memory.” Uhhhh, what? Was street fainting and sudden & acute memory loss a big thing in the 80’s? If it was, maybe it was an East Coast thing, because no one I knew in California ever had that happen.
So, yeah. I know I’m critiquing a lot of aspects of the book, and maybe it sounds like I didn’t like it, but that’s not true. I actually did like it, I just had a lot of issues with it. But such is life. It’s easy to look back at older works and criticize them for the standards of the time, and though I have pointed out some of those things in this review, that doesn’t mean that they ruined my enjoyment of the book. It’s actually a pretty solid read, and I have no doubt that it was very popular with the V.C. Andrews crowd back in the day. It really is a fun & unique entry into the psycho killer genre of horror fiction from that timeframe, and something more oriented towards a female audience, which was in short supply back then. It was also Judi Miller's first published book, so she was still honing her craft. And fans of 80’s/90’s horror will enjoy it regardless of its flaws. It’s worth reading Save The Last Dance For Me to take a trip back to a time when horror authors really had to struggle to come up with ideas that would get them published, especially since King & Koontz were setting high standards. Definitely check it out if you are in the mood for some retro slasher scares!
Three out of five graceful yet catty stars!