To the quiet, respectable inhabitants of the mid-western college town of Galesburg, Illinois, murder is a virtually unknown social phenomenon. But when Lucy Brown is attacked by a masked, knife-wielding maniac, and her date, high-school student Waldo Davis, is slain before her eyes, the town is shaken to its very roots.
For John Brady of the Galesburg Police Department, the shock does not end there. Another body, that of high school student Bryan Morgan, has been discovered very dead and horribly mutilated.
Fear begins to spread through the town. For the moment, however, it doesn't seem to have affected student Pete Brady, son of the law enforcement officer, whose concern is rather to find a way to finance himself through college without his father's assistance.
The Galesburg college psychology department is paying for volunteers to participate in their research program. The experiments seem innocent enough - the simple indoctrination of animals to perform certain functions based on a reward principle and, in the case of humans, modified treatments to control smoking behavior, over-eating, alcoholism and so on.
There is, nevertheless, something faintly sinister in the continuing presence of the late Dr. Le Sange, whose lectures survive him in the form of video cassettes.
While Pete gradually gets more and more caught up in the program, John Brady's murder investigation gets its first lead at the cost of a further double murder. Before she is viciously stabbed to death, Mrs. Haskell, a local cleaning woman and home help, interrupts the dismembering of another student by an overweight young woman, and has time to telephone the police with a brief description of the killer.
Brady, with a team of detectives, divides up the list of possible suspects, convinced that the trail will lead them inexorably to the college campus and, more specifically, to the psychology department's experiments.