Quadriplegic forensic detective Lincoln Rhyme is awaiting experimental surgery in a North Carolina hospital when he is asked to help solve a local kidnapping. A disturbed teenager has dragged two young women into the woods. The boy, Garrett Hanlon, known locally for his obsessive interest in insects, has also been a suspect in several recent murders. Rhyme agrees to help local police find Hanlon and his two victims. Rhyme’s partner Amelia Sachs takes his physical place during investigations; her detailed findings allow Rhyme to solve crimes based on physical evidence.
Before long one of the young women is found and Hanlon is in custody; however, Amelia Sachs believes the boy is innocent. Acting on an almost maternal feeling for Hanlon, Sachs breaks him out of jail and the two become refugees. Sachs pits her skills as a criminalist against those of her mentor Rhyme, and the two match wits as time runs out for the second kidnap victim.
The Empty Chair takes a few chapters to hit its stride. Initially Rhyme’s ill temper and his colleagues’ tolerance of his genius seem contrived, and forensic machinery is described in monotonous detail as a makeshift crime lab is set up at Rhyme’s direction. Rhyme’s relationship with Sachs is fleshed out in later chapters, and the mystery picks up pace as Rhyme and Sachs are pitted against local police, backwoods bounty hunters, and each other. The novel winds up with no fewer than four plot twists in quick succession.