In this thriller, a Chicago psychiatrist tries to figure out why a seemingly mild-mannered middle-aged man murdered his own teenage daughter.
James Shannon is a devoutly Catholic 55-year-old without any history of violence, mental illness, or substance abuse. However, 18 months after the death of his wife of nearly 20 years, he savagely kills his 15-year-old daughter, Christina—an act that’s as inexplicable as it is brutal. Afterward, he calmly pours himself a glass of milk, puts on some music, and calls the police; he confesses his crime to authorities, then falls silent. Hal Gottlieb, a psychiatrist at the Greater Chicago Forensic Institute, examines James, but can find nothing in his history or character that would account for his sudden crime. He speaks to his family members and friends, and they all share the same opinion of his character—nothing but normality. Finally, James breaks his silence and provides a clue to his motive, saying that he killed Christina in order “to save the world from her.” Hal turns his investigative attention to Christina herself and interviews her former camp counselor and a therapist who briefly treated her. The conversations paint a disturbing portrait of a hyper-intelligent loner who was not only indifferent to the suffering of others, but also chillingly drawn to it. Meanwhile, Hal wrestles with his own domestic tumult—his 15-year-old son, Peter, is surly and withdrawn, which eventually places a considerable strain on Hal’s relationship with his wife, Sharon, Peter’s mother. Further complicating matters, he becomes friends with a historian, Cassandra Wirth, for whom he develops a romantic attraction.
Goodwin (The Stephen Hawking Death Row Fan Club, 2015) seamlessly combines a psychological thriller with a philosophical meditation on the existence and meaning of evil. The plot’s suspense builds slowly, but never laboriously, as the author keeps readers tantalized, but never sated, in their thirst for the next revelation. This is a somewhat unconventional mystery, as the perpetrator of the central crime is never in question. Instead, the entire story is a quest for intent—some rational explanation for the initially inscrutable. As a result, the novel hinges on the depth of its characterizations, and on this score, Goodwin doesn’t disappoint. Both James and Hal are marvelously complicated figures—both thoroughly unspectacular in their own ways, but also grappling with the immensity of the concept of evil. Indeed, evil haunts the entire book: “Mankind has always waged a battle to keep his own worst tendencies in check. Sometimes we win this battle, although God knows we often lose it. Maybe part of how we fight the battle is to remind ourselves, over and over, about the presence of evil.” Even Hal’s friendship with Cassandra revolves around this discussion, as her academic specialty is the Holocaust, the 20th century’s grim riposte to any statement of optimism about humanity. Overall, Goodwin has crafted a searching reflection on the subject—one that’s artistically sure-footed and intellectually astute.
A thoughtful and discomfiting look at the dark depths of human nature.