Book Reviews

Mysteries -- Brief Reviews

I have reviewed books for The Journal of Alternative Therapies, Self-Help & Psychology online magazine, Publishers Weekly and my own newsletter, Mind Matters.

Enjoy my non-fiction book reviews.

Here are some of my brief reviews of mystery novels that are written by or about therapists. New reviews are added occasionally.

This Thing of Darkness by
Barbara Fradkin

Napoleon & Company.

This is arguably the best mystery novel I've read. Not only is the writing superb but the characterization and dialogue are so vivid the reader feels as though he is actually there as the plot unfolds.

A Jewish former psychiatrist who employed unorthodox methods with his mentally-ill patients is found beaten to death near Ottawa's Byward market.

Ottawa, Canada's capital, forms more than a backdrop to the drama, it is a character in itself with vibrant descriptions of the various neighbourhoods defined by their social classes. Suspects abound, including some young Somali toughs, disturbed ex-patients, an angry family member, even anti-Semitic gangs.

Enter Inspector Michael Green who is portrayed as riddled with self-doubts, impatience and irritation at no longer being a cop on the beat. The reader is not surprised at Green's ambivalent interactions with his underlings and superiors because we recognise how human he is.

Ditto for his so true-to-life family conversations and dealings with women.

The author describes tramps and prostitutes with empathy and understanding. Her knowledge about mental illness (e.g., violence is rare) is impressive and enlightening.

As the plot thickens you are cleverly misguided by the author to swallow one red herring after another.

Unlike many a mystery novel, the ending is plausible and satisfying yet still manages to leave you wondering.

Fortunately, Barbara Fradkin has published several other mysteries. So I'm looking forward to staying awake for several more nights reading her excellent prose.

Shatter by
Michael Robotham

Little, Brown.

Wow. If all writers were this good I'd get no sleep whatever. Robotham keeps the reader eager for the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next page.

The plot is exciting. The mystery deep. The characters are so realistically drawn, they leap off the page. One of the ways Robotham does this is by investing every character with believable flaws. And he similarly easily suspends the reader's disbelief at some of the horrors vividly described in this novel.

The author's insights into people are astounding. He imbues the psychologist-protagonist with wisdom yet humility; an ex-police officer with toughness yet integrity.

Unlike many authors, Robotham's teenagers sound like real adolescents. And the parental failings are all too familiar.

So often I scoff at the "I couldn't put it down" blurb promoting a book which turns out to be mediocre. But I was so engrossed in this novel my attention hardly wavered -- I only fell asleep after hours of reading. And I carried on reading as soon as I awoke.

To not spoil even a second of your enjoyment of this masterpiece I'm writing nothing about the clever plot. But I must say I enjoyed the various characters' cynicism about governments and war.

If you read only one mystery please make it this one.

Little Face by Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah's books are true mysteries. That is, they are far from the "whodunit" procedural novel. Each book from this superbly talented author begins with a mystery.

For instance, her first novel "Little Face" opens with the shock of a mother looking into the crib of her new baby -- and seeing another child in its place.

From the beginning the lyrical writing (Hannah was a poet and author of children's books before churning out fantastic mystery novels) draws you into the story with seemingly mundane details.

Alice Fancourt comes alive in your mind as you experience her anguish about the substitution of her baby. And her frustration that no-one, including her husband, believes her.

Other characters are equally vivid. Such as Simon, the brilliant but befuddled police officer who has been sexually targeted by a female colleague (annoyingly named "Charlie" -- why do British authors give female characters men's names?). His tortured innocence and love-hate relationship with his mother presage more than you could guess at.

Not least of which is Alice's relationship with her cunning, vindictive, overbearing mother-in-law.

My justification for reviewing this amazing book is that Alice is a homeopath who was working in an Alternative Medicine Centre.

When Simon visits the Centre:

"He'd spoken to everyone apart from the emotional freedom therapist. Her name was Briony Morris. She was with a client, keeping Simon waiting. At least he'd heard of acupuncture and reflexology, and that degree of familiarity made them seem almost respectable. Emotional freedom therapy sounded unpromising. Its name made Simon scornful and impatient, even a little nervous. He had spent his life trying to keep his emotions under control. He wasn't looking forward to meeting a woman whose life's work was to encourage the opposite policy."

Hannah is superb at presenting contradictory views, especially those dealing with religion or therapy. Later in this intriguing novel, with its intricate plot and credible dialogue there's a short debate about the efficacy or otherwise, of homeopathy.

The author has Simon scornfully tell a hypercritical EFT therapist, "I was under the impression that people in your sort of job were supposed to be non-judgemental" and follows this with his internal musings:

"How could you be a force for good in the world unless you used your judgement? Simon hated the sort of flabby-minded empathy peddled by most of these quacks, the assumption that everyone was equally deserving of compassion and consideration. Bollocks. Nothing would ever shake Simon's conviction that life--everyday, every hour--was a battle between moral salvation and the abyss."

The therapist's response to Simon's scorn may surprise you. The book's final chapters will certainly astonish you.

Some writers bring us essentially the same story over and over. Not so Sophie Hannah. Each of her books is to be treasured for its originality as well as its beautiful prose.

For example, Hannah's "The Other Half Lives" will have you pleasantly puzzled: a man insists he has killed a woman named Mary Trelease yet the other main character in the story knows that Mary Trelease is alive.

The novel holds particular poignancy for me as some of the story takes place at Alexandra Palace where, over half a century ago, I enjoyed riding on the carousel. Also, a decade later, as a teenager, while I was a Quaker I was familiar with Friends House in London which also plays a part in the novel. To say I was astounded at one character's portrayal of George Fox (the founder of the religious movement, the Society of Friends -- Quakers) is an understatement:

"George Fox was an arrogant twat who wouldn't be told anything by anybody," said Simon. [Yes, police officer Simon from Little Face]. "He was a tyrant -- smug, rude, tactless, intolerant, unforgiving, -- remember that, it's important. Worst of all, Fox dismissed the inevitability of sin."

Then follows a discussion of Simon's Catholic upbringing. As in her other books, Hannah delves into philosophy and religion with a sharpness and readability that is rare in a writer of mystery novels.

Another impressive talent of Sophie Hannah is her ability to switch protagonists from one chapter to another without confusing the reader in the least.

I read hundreds of mysteries a year. Hannah's novels are the first I've ever considered reading a second time.

Order them now. You won't be disappointed.

[For some reason known only to the American publisher the book's title which has significance in the British original was changed to The Dead Lie Down in the U.S.]

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson

I can include include this final book of the fascinating trilogy by the late Swedish writer because of his brilliant portrayal of an evil psychiatrist. You will delight in the excellent characterizations (especially that of the heroine, Lisbeth Salander) and the complex plot of this world-wide best-seller.

Speak No Evil by Martyn Waites

"It Shouldn't Hurt To Be A Child"

My title is borrowed from a Burlington, Vermont child care association.

The title of the book has multiple levels of meaning one of which is that Anne Marie who as a child killed a little boy, is reluctant to talk about the evil she has done, or the evil she continues to witness. She cannot escape the pain of her horrific upbringing and her childhood crime.

Psychiatric help had been of no use. Social workers had been worse than useless. Anne Marie changed her family name to that of the only person who ever showed her love -- a foster mother.

When children are murdered near where Anne Marie lives she becomes the #1 suspect.

Descriptions of the violence and revolting living conditions and suffering that poor people endure in Britain's social housing estates are enough to turn your stomach.

There is perhaps too much emphasis on the equation that if you are abused as a child you'll grow up to be an abuser. Although this is somewhat balanced by the multi-facets of not only Anne Marie (who is determined to protect her son) but of Rob, the man she lives with, a drunken slob who nevertheless displays loyalty and conscience.

Other characters in the novel are also well-drawn. I was especially impressed with the come-alive-off-the-page characterization of the ethically-challenged journalist, Tess Preston.

The story flows engagingly as Anne Marie slowly unfolds the details of her life to writer Joe Donovan whose own son went missing years before.

Donovan's three-member private detective team composed of the politically correct Asian smart young man, no-nonsense ex-policewoman and the gay but tough guy is also vivid.

This book is a great read until the abrupt, and predictable, ending.

Bones by Jonathan Kellerman

Fictional psychologist Alex Delaware once again displays his uncanny insights into a crime that puzzles homicide detectives. Snappy dialogue and excellent characterization (such as that of Robin, Alex's lover and Blanche, their dog, not to mention the large appetite gay detective hero Milo Sturgis and his physician partner) enliven the story which, as usual, is cleverly concluded after a lengthy exploration of red herrings. One of Kellerman's strengths is that the names of his characters are distinctive. Except for Simon and Simone (occasionally difficult to distinguish when the reader is half asleep). The author weaves in his apparently vast knowldege of psychiatric disorders and their medical nostrums.

Death of A Thousand Cuts by Barbara D'Amato

Autism is little understood but in this novel finely drawn autistic characters inform as well as entertain us despite the horrific beliefs and practices of a psychiatrist whose death the reader is unlikely to mourn. Based on the real-life work of the notorious Bruno Bettelheim who claimed that the cause of autism is that parents of an autistic child "wish that the child should not exist."

Each chapter is preceded by a shocking quote from the equally disturbed Sigmund Freud.

The Programs by Greg Hurwitz

Inside a mind-programming cult. Excellent expositions of hypnosis and how it differs to brainwashing.

Exit Wounds by J.A. Jance.

Hoarders, child sexual abuse and polygamy are some of the topics in this suspense novel by a master of the craft.

The Wire in the Blood

by Val McDermid

Reminiscent of early Ruth Rendell's works, this gruesome piece brings alive the workings of a killer's mind and makes you wonder how close a psychiatrist's thinking is to that of the disturbed people he studies. Brilliant.

The Mermaids Singing by Val McDermid

Fast becoming one of my favourite writers, Val McDermid has a fine grasp on all things therapeutic. Check the accuracy of a hypnosis session, for instance on page 304.

Dead Famous

by Carol O'Connell

Thank goodness there's a series of these books featuring Kathy Mallory, surely fiction's most endearing sociopath. In this fast-paced book an FBI agent is killed in a psychiatrist's office. O'Connell draws characters so well that I can actually remember their names and habits. (Usually I forget details of a novel as soon as I finish it. But not O'Connell's).

The Last Temptation

by Val McDermid

No praise is too high for McDermid's mysteries. Here again she excels in portraying the thinking, drives and weaknesses of men (especially as portrayed by Tony Hill, psychiatrist) in a mystery packed with complexities to satisfy even a jaded mystery-lover. More satisfying accurate descriptions of forensic hypnosis.

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

Yes, once I discovered McDermid's books I had to have all of them. This one, apart from its lending legitimacy to psychics, doesn't disappoint. Complex plot, surprises, puzzles, and insight into families -- and abuse.

The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

No wonder the author wins prizes! Another great puzzle. When you read this book you'll realise why the title is so clever. I can't recall what the therapy connection is but no rationale is really necessary to recommend a Val McDermid tour de force.

Killing the Shadows by Val McDermid

Ah yes. An academic psychologist, Fiona Cameron, does what is now called "profiling" for the police who are trying to track a serial killer. This was the first of McDermid's books I chanced upon. Certainly couldn't resist when the back cover blurb said the killer was targeting writers of mystery novels!

The Analyst by John Katzenbach

A chilling tale of a psychoanalyst threatened by a psychopath. Clever use of the Freudian myths to intrigue and fool the reader.

Garnet Hill by Denise Mina

A delight for the anti-psychiatrist reader. Unethical behaviour, scandals, abuse. Also determined courage by a betrayed client. Gives a fresh meaning to the so-called False Memory Syndrome.

Psychopath by Keith Ablow

Delve into the mind of Dr Ablow, a real-life forensic psychiatrist. His portrayal of a psychopathic psychiatrist would make you steer clear of all shrinks were it not for Ablow's wonderful characterization of the hero, Dr Frank Clevenger, reluctant crime-solving forensic psychiatrist.

Compulsion by Keith Ablow

Even psychiatrists have problems. And that's what makes Dr Clevenger seem so real. He struggles with his own weaknesses while delving into a family's tangled psychosexual history as he searches for answers about who killed a billionaire's five-month-old daughter. Compelling reading.

Blood Trance by R.D. Zimmerman

How's this for an original detective? She's not just female, but blind and paraplegic. Zimmerman's creation of forensic hypnotherapist Maddy who works through her brother and best hypnotic subject, Alex, is unforgettable. Apart from her tendency to ask leading questions, Maddy offers some interesting examples of using hypnosis to solve crimes.

Projection by Keith Ablow

Talk about the inmates controlling the asylum. Dr Clevenger comes face-to-face with a demented plastic surgeon who has taken over a hospital's locked unit for the criminally insane. He shares a secret with our hero. Two high intellects battle each other while providing first class reading for us, the voyeurs. [Hardcover]

Shades of Justice by Fredrick Huebner

Another fictional forensic psychiatrist. This time Dr Will Hatton, who usually testifies against insanity pleas, has to free repressed memories from an old flame suspected of murder. A good read despite the obviousness of who is guilty.

The Syndrome by John Case

Features a clinical psychologist, brainwashing, behaviour control and the usual corporate evil-doers in an exciting tale with all the expected twists and turns. But you really have to suspend your disbelief.

Exile by Denise Mina

More horrors resulting from childhood sexual abuse. And more questionable therapists. The unravelling of who murdered Anne Harris, a homeless woman, and whether Angus the therapist can be trusted, will keep you guessing.

The Red Room by Nicci French

Surprise ending? You'll be pleased with this one. Here's a psychologist who refuses to accept the police's supposition that the man who viciously attacked her also murdered another young woman. My bias that British mysteries are in general far superior to American whodunits is borne out by this tale which takes the reader through the gritty lives of London's street kids.

Help Line by Faye Sultan

This novel ends with a somewhat confusing scene. But the volunteer telephone work of a forensic psychologist in Charlotte, North Carolina with the murderer of a famous psychic bubbles with authenticity. And that's despite her fake-sounding name -- Portia McTeaque.

Chain reaction by Elise Title

Male victims? A female psychiatrist who specialises in sexual addictions as the main suspect? Could this possibly be a sort of wishful thinking on the part of the author, a psychotherapist who worked with high-security prison inmates for 15 years? Would be enough to warp anyone's mind, even that of a therapist.

Lost Light by Michael Connelly

For a pretty good (and simple) hypnotic technique check pages 140 - 142. Probably the best book in the series that features detective Harry Bosch.

Privileged Information by Stephen White

Ah, therapist ethics can certainly get you into hot water. Clinical psychologist Alan Gregory's patients are dying but he feels ethically bound not to reveal their privileged communications -- even though he stands accused of sexual misconduct with a female client who kills herself.

Blameless by Barbara Shapiro (PhD)

Another therapist in trouble. Another dead client. Only this time the therapist is female and the client is male. And the problem is that the client committed suicide, leaving a note that blamed the pregnant Dr Diana Marcus. Freudian fans will love how the author delves in counter- transference.

Fast Forward by Judy Mercer

Several pages of accurate information about hypnosis and psychotherapy are refreshing. Couple that with an intriguing mystery about memory and identity plus an excellent rendition of a hypnotherapy session and you have a novel to delight even the severest critic.

The Suspect by Michael Robotham

One lie (of omission) puts clinical psychologist Joseph O'Loughlin into a downward spiral of suspicion. His worries about the murderous tendencies of a client will have you guessing until the end of the novel. Another great mystery from Britain.

Privileged Conversation by Evan Hunter

A fabulous ending by the author of scores of novels under various pen-names and the screen play for Hitchcock's The Birds. A married psychiatrist's erotic involvement with a Broadway dancer underscores another tale of ethical misconduct. But what a tale!

Deliver Us From Evil by Philip Luber

Luber is a forensic psychologist who works with mentally ill and violent patients. His fictional psychiatrist, Harry Kline, battles evil in this story while facing the dilemma of who can a therapist trust? Does Harry know too many secrets of the wealthy in Concord, Massachusetts? Is he in danger of being murdered? Hmm. Luber is from Massachusetts. Makes one wonder. But I suppose it would be unfair to the good citizens of Concord to read too much into this novel, right?

Darker than Night by John Lutz

Ah, the limitations of psychiatry. In this novel a brilliant therapist is devastatingly outwitted by a murderer before she can get beyond his presenting problem. Dr Rita Maxwell, like all the characters in this book, especially the police officers, is deftly drawn. So real are the cops that you might expect to meet them as you walk along your neighbourhood street. Whether you'd feel safer is a moot point. The novel ends with a clever twist.

Blinded by Stephen White

Fictional psychologist Alan Gregory is once again beset with ethical isues. Besotted by a beautiful client. Wanting to tip off his cop friend but not wanting to betray a client's confidence. This is a great read; lots of inside therapeutical know-how. Although the ending is somewhat predictable it does not detract from enjoying the book.

Judas Child by Carol O'Connell

As usual, O'Connell's sharp characterizations bring her fictional characters so alive that you'd not be surprised to meet them in the local mall. This excellent story portrays the questionable ethics of a psychiatrist torn between client confidentiality and the potential deaths of two children.

O'Connell's misdirection of the reader is clever. You'll be both satisfied and disturbed at the end of this fine novel.

Still Life by Louise Penny

A terrific first novel. With its sharp characterisation, clever plot (with twists), humour and "exotic" (Quebec) setting it's no wonder Louise Penny won the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel. Excellent philosophy is expounded by the well-rounded police inspector who believes we make choices and have to accept responsibility for our behaviour. A pleasure to read from start to finish.

Praying for Sleep
by
Jeffery Deaver

Signet Books

This novel, written by a former lawyer, tells the gut-wrenching story of an escapee from a mental hospital for the criminally insane. The schizophrenic patient is on his tortuous way -- despite storms, state troopers, car crashes, psychiatrists, a bounty hunter, tracking dogs, and a vengeful lawyer -- to find the woman who testified against him when he was on trial for murder.

The clarity of description of what it means to be schizophrenic is startling. How the schizophrenic differs to the psychopath is cleverly interwoven into a complex tale. The many apparently pointless anecdotes in the novel are ultimately shown to be integral to the story's climax.

Psychiatry is presented with all its faces: compassionate, dedicated, as well as mercenary and heartless. Ignorant and knowledgeable.

Therapists may guess the "surprise" ending well in advance but most readers will be satisfactorily fooled.

Romeo

by Elise Title

Bantam Books

What an amazing book! An excellent mystery with breathtaking insights into disturbed minds.

Not for the squeamish, Romeo tells the tale of a serial killer, the strong women victims he romances, the cops who try to outwit him, and, most of all, of the avenging sister of a psychiatrist Romeo slaughtered.

Those who look with a jaundiced eye at psychiatrists will relish the mocking characterizations of the several psychiatrists, only one of whom appears to rise above cruelty and weak ethics.

In addition to the finely-drawn portraits of the main female characters, you'll enjoy the politically-correct men: the gay, sensitive, wheelchair-bound best friend, the adorable transvestite neighbor, and the compassionate police officers.

First-time author, psychotherapist Elise Title, expertly casts suspicion on several likely candidates for the ghastly role of Romeo. Only the most avid of mystery readers will be able to identify the killer before the author's revelation during the exciting, though somewhat predictable, climax.

Most chapters are preceded with excerpts from the slain psychiatrist's diary or her comments on a television show in which she had analyzed the killer. These brief sentences -- like the whole book -- brim with authenticity.

Like the thoughts of a client during psychotherapy sessions. And such genuine details as how victims bury their secrets, and that a survivor often returns to the scene of her victimization.

The author's portrayal of the terror and confusion caused by flashbacks is at times so vivid it was as though my own clients were sobbing out their terrible secrets.

One guarantee, when you've finished these riveting 500+ pages, is that hearts and heart-shaped chocolates, will never again seem innocent.

Dr Neruda's Cure for Evil
Rafael Yglesias
Warner Books

What an amazing book. This novel is bound to intrigue psychotherapists, or anyone who has been in therapy.

Entertaining, thought-provoking, shocking, enlightening, puzzling, this fascinating work tackles many issues such as incest, insanity, the nature of love, the drive for power, religious, business and political creeds, therapeutic ethics -- and, of course, what (or who) is evil.

The story of a psychiatrist who has first to face his own demons, and then those of lovers and clients, this lengthy book both informs and challenges the reader. What is important to children and what adults can do about abuse are but two of the subjects written about in a style so vivid you expect to turn around and speak with Rafael, child or grown-up (sort of) man.

I'm sure I missed many of the metaphors woven into the text. And I wonder why the author chose to give the protaganist his own first name.

But I'm delighted Rafael Yglesias so well illuminates the torn loyalties that I and other children of mixed cultural backgrounds experience.

The author's grasp of therapeutic techniques and controversies is astonishing for someone who I assume is not a practitioner.

"Dr Neruda" puts a name to an ancient disturbance that has until now been passed over by the psychiatric establishment: Evil Disorder.

I am indebted to the author for clarifying why, out of the thousands of clients I've worked with over the past four decades, from only one did I sense an overpowering cloud of evil. It's because she fit Yglesias' definition about evil people who "don't appear on our [psychology] radar because we don't recognize their outline. They are not in conflict. The equation is one-sided: they don't need love and victory, only victory; they don't need peace and pleasure, only pleasure. Truly, this makes labeling them evil a definition, not a swear word to vent our disapproval."

How Dr Neruda chooses to treat the Evil Disorder will shock traditional therapists.

And leaves open the question of whether the fictional psychiatrist becomes as manipulative and as focused on victory as his evil patients.

Dead Sleep
Greg Iles
New American Library [Penguin]

Usually I skip over any book whose blurb mentions the FBI. I'm so glad I didn't skip this one. A fascinating story, a real mystery. Who is painting pictures of women who've disappeared without a trace, and are they alive or dead?

The characters are so well-drawn the reader can't help but empathise with them, inluding a sympathetic but believable FBI agent. For fun there's an inept, arrogant psychiatrist.

But the heroine, in all her female complexity, is the character who is so alive she seems almost to be with the reader, whispering the story into his ear. No mean accomplishment, considering the author is a man.

The action never lets up. I also like that the reader is never confused about which character is which [no similar names or untraceable pronouns]. No cardboard here. Psychological issues and true-to-life human dilemmas abound.

New Orleans is described in such vivid prose I could visualise and smell the streets and gardens, the streetcars, the homes and colleges, with amazing clarity.

The heroine is a war photographer who is desperately seeking the truth about her twin sister who appears in one of the paintings of missing women. Greg Iles has skillfully woven the photography theme into a novel in ways that will please and astonish you.

As will the twists in this ingenious book.

I resist telling you more details of this cleverly structured story so you can enjoy the prose, the puzzles and the people unsullied with foreknowledge.

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Dr. Knight is himself the author of several books, including the mystery "Deadly Therapy".