29 September 2011

Desperately Seeking Detectives

Consider the flood of detective novels, mysteries, and thrillers. Consider that, unlike the Victorians and the Edwardians, a jewel robbery or two is not enough to elevate the reader's heartbeat. Consider that, except maybe in the hands of Karin Fossum, a single victim is currently small potatoes. And consider that with only two sexes, the permutations of she killed him, he killed her, he killed him, etc don't go very far.

What's a writer to do for variety? There are the save the world thrillers of great ambition and small plausibility, and the serial killers that have just about displaced Nazis as an all-purpose menace. But the sovereign source of originality remains The Detective.

Here the profession has shown almost unlimited ingenuity. We've had all manner of police from every age and every nation. Monks and priests likewise, to be joined by Chinese scholars and Japanese potters. Little old ladies who haunt prize gardens and country houses share the shelves with little old men (and some not so old) who pontificate from their armchairs.

There are gumshoes of every type, ditto journalists, those other licensed snoops. Railroad engineers fussed about malfeasance along the rails and titled lords who find unpleasantness at their clubs rub elbows with Greek scholars navigating the shoals of the ancient world and their Roman counterparts loose in the Empire, not to mention swaggering Renaissance gentlemen abroad in low company.

Even species is no bar, either, especially for the feline tribe with cats as assistants, cats as narrators and witnesses. The mind boggles.

Of course, every detective needs a weakness and here, again, the profession has been creative. The old broken heart (Lord Peter Wimsey) and alcohol problems (Philip Marlowe) have been greatly expanded. One of Dick Francis's protagonists had a hand crippled from a racing accident. Jeffrey Deaver went several steps better with Lincoln Rhyme, his quadriplegic detective, while Jonathan Lethem gave his Lionel Essrog Tourette's syndrome, which certainly added an original flavor to the narrative.

But to the best of my knowledge no one before Alice LaPlante has attempted a mystery narrated by an Alzheimer's patient, although Faulkner had the profoundly retarded Benjy narrate part of the mysterious The Sound and the Fury.

The main character of Turn of Mind keeps a sign in her kitchen, informing whoever maybe concerned that she is Dr. Jennifer White, 64, suffering from dementia. A former top hand surgeon and a widow with two grown children, she is initially still able to read and capable of writing down the events of the day as Magdalena, her caregiver urges her to do.

But there are gaps and nowhere are those moments in the mental abyss more noticeable than when the murder of her long time friend and neighbor, Amanda O'Toole, is at issue. Dr. White forgets that her friend is dead; Dr. White grieves and is lonely, and then Dr. White forgets again. Not uncommon with a dementia patient, but this one is different. This one is not only a grieving survivor but also a 'person of interest' in the death.

Who knocked the formidable Amanda on the head, and then removed four of the fingers of her right hand? Surgically removed, that is. Does Dr. White not know? Or does Dr. White not remember? Or does Dr. White not want to remember?

These are the chief mysteries of Turn of Mind, although other questions emerge in the course of the novel, and LaPlante's skillful plotting creates a good amount of suspense. Almost everything is filtered through Dr. White's increasingly fragmented mind, and it is fair enough to call her both suspect and detective. Despite a capable investigating officer, the case is ultimately resolved through the doctor's almost dissolved memories. By the end, although she barely registers it, the doctor presents the reader with the truth.

The portraits of both women, and also of Dr. White's two problematic children, Mark and Fiona, are sharp and complex. The doctor's memories of her husband, James, and of her children when young and of her friendship with Amanda and her husband Peter are all imaginatively handled. Though broken up by plausible gaps in Dr. White's consciousness, we eventually get a good picture of a complex woman in complicated relationships.

If the good doctor occasionally seems to have retained too much - she gets loose in her old clinic and gives perfectly good medical advice for a half hour or so - the sense the novel gives of a good mind crumbling is more genuinely scary than any number of terrorist plots or serial killers. In Turn of Mind, LaPlante has scored a rare double, finding not only a unique 'detective' but a uniquely terrifying antagonist in Alzheimer's disease. The result is an imaginative and provocative volume.


  1. Like Louis Willis' reviews, yours makes me want to read the book. As you know, I wrote about Alzheimer's for the MWA anthology, although mine was the killer, not the detective.

    The Belgian noir thriller film De Zaak Alzheimer, variously called The Alzheimer Case, The Memory of a Killer, and The Alzheimer Affair, may lie in a different part of the mystery spectrum, but I highly recomment it.

  2. Nice post, Janice! I read Turn of Mind and thought it was brilliant. Interestingly, I read it right after reading Before I go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson. In that novel (also really well done) the protagonist has had a head injury that wipes out her memory every night when she goes to sleep. Another great take on a mystery story where the protagonist and narrator battles an impairment.

  3. Very interesting, Janice. I haven't read Turn of Mind, but I will. The Sound and the Fury has been a favorite novel of mine since I was sixteen, and I was then and still remain impressed with how Faulkner handled Benjy's part of the story.

  4. Great column, Janice! Enjoyed this.

  5. Really makes me want to read the book. Wonderfully witten, Janice. Well done.

  6. Sorry to be so long in responding to your wonderful article, Janice, but I've just mangaged to get on this site after weeks of trying. You've gotten my interest and I intend to read the book. My wife and I are witnessing the dissolution of her father as he dies of cancer; his mind, which was always very keen, has recently spiraled into confusion and he only enjoys brief periods of lucidity. It is very difficult to understand his concerns and priorities as they exist now in a seperate sphere from our own. Thanks for the article.

  7. I enjoyed the article, Janice, and I, too, am a Karin Fossum fan.

  8. I've just managed (sometimes) to sign onto this site, Janice; hence the late post. Great article and I intend to read the novel. By the way, I'm a big Karin Fossum fan.

  9. I love Karin Fossum and look forward to reading this book, as well.


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