The Center for Aesthetics in California hopes to introduce a drug that can cure post-surgical patients’ neuroses, but it’s a murder that sends doctors into a tailspin in Dafoe’s debut thriller.
Surgeon Dr. Duncan Gates believes his career is over before it has started when, on the way to his first job, he’s in a car accident that leaves him scarred and with double vision. But he’s given another chance thanks to Dr. Gunther Mendoza, whose new center just opened its doors. Dr. M, a plastic surgeon, is fed up with patients who can’t adjust psychologically after cosmetic surgery. He aspires to reverse this negative mental state with a not-quite–Food and Drug Administration–approved drug, Nepenthe, courtesy of neuropharmacologist Dr. Neelaka Oghob. Drs. M and Oghob secretly test Nepenthe, which wipes out bad memories, and bring in Willie Jefferson as a test subject. Willie’s a convicted serial killer who served only nine months of a life sentence, but if Nepenthe’s viable, it’ll turn him into a productive citizen. The drug has to succeed, especially because Sen. Helen Selkirk’s already beefing up her re-election campaign by teasing a “pharma-correction” program. But all plans for Nepenthe may go awry when a body turns up at the center. Sure, Willie’s the go-to suspect, but no one, including Duncan, has a solid alibi, and anyone could be capable of murder. The author guarantees intrigue in his soap-opera plot with an opening scene at the morgue. Readers learn that the victim’s female, but the story doesn’t reveal who she is until much later. Enthralling character relationships in the tale abound. Duncan, for one, romances free-spirited dance therapist Beni Romano, whose reserved identical twin, Anna, is a psychiatrist; a surgeon at the center, Dr. Darrell Jefferson, is Willie’s brother. The murderer, too, is not initially apparent, with varying opportunities and motives among numerous suspects. Dafoe’s narrative remains generally easygoing, in keeping with the animated plot; the sisters’ constant bickering is a highlight, at one point even resulting in a hair-pulling scuffle. But he shrewdly addresses serious issues, like whether rehabilitating a criminal is possible or whether the adverse reactions to a grim recollection can ever truly disappear.
Secret drug trials, back-stabbings, and
unnatural death: fundamentals for an electrifying tale.