Intense psychodramas involving two women and their domineering shrink escalate to skullduggery and violence in this noirish debut suspense novel.
San Francisco Bay Area psychiatrist Robert Buchanan’s Reichian praxis of forcing patients to confront “the primal truth about sex, the drives, the instincts” by needling them with sarcasm as he sketches pornographic cartoons may seem like an inappropriate way to treat sexual assault victims. But after two years of such therapy, Anna Sheffield, a rape survivor suffering from PTSD and sculptor’s block, thinks she’s making some progress. However, her confidence in his methods wanes when another patient, Michele, a gorgeous exotic dancer and child molestation victim, tells her that Robert fathered her 18-month-old child during a session; the striptease she performed for him, complete with an undulating serpent-in-Eden tattoo, eroded his willpower. Michele’s scheme to blackmail Robert into paying or marrying her gradually ropes in the well-meaning Anna and unearths evidence of other sexual misdeeds and suspicious deaths in his past. Robert will use all his powers of seductive manipulation, medical authority, and pharmacological expertise to suppress this evidence. The sleuthing plot at the center of Van Alyn’s meandering yarn sometimes feels contrived and ill-motivated; it’s the kind of story in which people keep asking the heroine why she doesn’t just go the authorities with her suspicions—and they never get a good answer. What redeems the novel, however, is the subtlety and psychological shrewdness of the author’s prose and dialogue, and the vibrant complexity of her characters. Robert, for example, is a masterpiece of bombastic narcissism (“She was too small to tolerate the vast spaces of his inner being,” he muses about his former wife), and Michele is a richly layered tapestry of delusional romanticism and self-centered money-grubbing, whose hard-boiled bravado masks her raw neediness. Even secondary characters possess a Dickensian piquancy; their actions don’t always make sense, but it’s fascinating to get inside their heads.
An often entertaining mystery about extreme psychotherapy.