L.A. MENTAL will come as somewhat of a surprise to those familiar with Neil McMahon’s more recent, non-collaborative novels such as DEAD SILVER and LONE CREEK. Those books, with their contemporary western setting, are a world away from his latest, in both geography and subject matter. What he has done here is combine the character-driven plotting of his later work with some of the scientific elements of his first efforts, thrown some Hollywood glitz, glamour and drugs into the mix, and created a book quite different from anything he has done before. It takes a bit of getting used to, at least for the first few pages, but the deeper one gets into it, the more riveting and addicting it becomes.
"McMahon’s step outside of his literary comfort zone is an interesting and exciting one, and hopefully he will be inspired to make another sooner rather than later."
The novel begins with some accounts of a series of incidents in which a number of seemingly unconnected people in the Los Angeles area go unhinged, destroying their homes, others, or themselves. One of them is Neil Crandall. His attempt at suicide is foiled by his brother Tom, a psychologist who initially considers Neil’s behavior to be the result of too much substance abuse and too little responsibility. Of the four Crandall siblings, Tom is the only one who has eschewed their life of privilege, and as an apparent result is the most grounded of the four. Erica, the youngest, has a motor that idles at fast speed, 24/7, and she lacks the blessings of impulse control and good judgment. Brother Paul, for his part, is extremely self-centered.
It is Paul who gets the family involved in the use of their all-but-abandoned property for a film entitled The Velvet Glove. The movie is the first project of Parallax Productions, which in turn is the brainchild of Gunnar Kelso, a physicist who is trying his hand at filmmaking. Parallax is more than a film company, though, and The Velvet Glove is more than a movie; Kelso is using both as vehicles to put forth his unique and somewhat unsettling theories about human behavior and what he sees as the disturbing and unseen power behind it. Paul, as it turns out, is deeply involved in the financing of the film and in some other things as well.
Tom begins to quietly investigate where the family finances have been going and discovers that Nick has been blackmailing Paul and Erica. Yet someone seems to be controlling Nick as well. When a disturbing discovery concerning his medical condition is made, Tom becomes more suspicious about what is occurring on the set of The Velvet Glove. But as he attempts to dig more deeply into what is happening, Tom begins to lose control of his own behavior. He must uncover who is behind the apparent manipulation of his family, and why, before he loses control of his own life and everyone and everything he holds close.
L.A. MENTAL --- I love the subtle pun here --- combines mystery, suspense and a touch of science fiction to produce a thriller that builds slowly as clues are tantalizingly revealed. Though the story is complete in itself, the ending will leave you guessing and wondering, particularly in light of certain discoveries in the field of physics during the past decade. McMahon’s step outside of his literary comfort zone is an interesting and exciting one, and hopefully he will be inspired to make another sooner rather than later.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 10, 2011