Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Suspiciously Good

Suspect, by Michael Robotham, Read by Simon Prebble, Recorded Books, LLC, 2005

It has for some time now been my observation that if you like intelligent, compelling mysteries about complexly human characters, your best bet is to peruse British authors. Something about that damp, misty isle seems to fester in the blood in such a way as to make the depressing nature of crime and the existential angst of investigating it more resonant than your American mysteries. Where the Americans solve crimes with their fists or their guns, the Brits use their wits, and often, in the process, uncover more than they’d like about themselves.

It seems that a new former colony might be on the verge of giving the motherland a run for its money. As Peter Carey demonstrated in his mindbending sorta-mystery My Life as a Fake, Australia is on the cusp of some well-deserved international attention.

Which brings us to Michael Robotham’s intricately plotted debut thriller Suspect. For the first quarter of the book, I worried that the novel was going to end up another by the numbers “accused man hunts down the real killers” type of chase book. But as elements of that particular type of story were set up, then spun ever so slightly, then with greater and greater unpredictability, I began to get the distinct feeling that Robotham was toying with me.

And part of what adds to that quality is that the book could have been an absolutely first rate novel of a marriage strained to the point of disintegration by catastrophic illness. Joe O’Loughlin, the psychologist hero of the book is given two shocks within one month. First, he is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; secondly, a former patient of his, a troubled young woman who once lodged a fraudulent complaint of sexual harassment against O’Loughlin nearly destroying his marriage and career, is found brutally murdered, not too far from his home.

Unwisely at first, O’Loughlin withholds his acquaintance with the murdered woman from Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz who is investigating the case which makes each subsequent complication to the case seem darker and more suspicious. After all, each new complication further ensnares O’Loughlin.

Certain he is being framed, O’Loughlin believes the killer to be another patient of his and begins his own investigations. The more O’Loughlin is drawn into the investigation, the guiltier he looks. Even we, the readers, begin to suspect his involvement going deeper than he is letting us in on. The accumulating twists, the accumulating suspense that accompanies each parry and thrust of suspect and investigator (whether that is between Ruiz and O’Loughlin or O’Loughlin and his quarry), are neatly done—surprising, but with the feeling of naturalness often left out of too many baroquely complicated thrillers.

If the book has any specific weaknesses, there is a first time authors over-reliance on cliches types, the gruff homicide detective, the crass defense lawyer, the schizophrenic villain (whatever happened to greedy killers who wanted the insurance money?), and the long-suffering but true to the end wife of the accused. The tie up at the book’s end is likewise a shade too neat with a bit too pat a loose thread left hanging for open ended suspense. There is a still a good deal of the book that almost cries out just to be focussed on rather than the murder and its investigation.

Joe’s marriage is slowly disintegrating due he and his wife’s failures at pregnancy; his relationship is strained with his oldest friend and competitor; his father is disappointed in the “unscientific” nature of his chosen field of clinical psychology when compared to his own hard science background; and his alliance with a young ex-prostitute with whom he sometimes works on sexual counseling contains elements of temptation. All of these together, subtracting the murder, are compelling enough and Robotham handles them with a decent sensitivity that is delicate enough without being mawkish and completely enough drawn while not sidetracking the story the author wants to tell.

I specifically chose this book because of narrator Simon Prebble, about whom I can hardly say enough good things. Every so often, you hear a reader who is artistic without being artificial, characteristic without relying on caricature, mellifluous without being overtly in love with the sound of his own voice, and an all around treat to listen to for hours on end. Prebble is just such a reader and without his gifts, I might never have discovered this compelling read.

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