The publication of LINE OF FIRE is a bittersweet event. Stephen White has announced that this is the penultimate volume in the Alan Gregory series. In his Acknowledgements, he expresses positive feelings about this, so one gets the sense that the series is arriving at an anticipated destination, rather than being pushed, pulled and cajoled uphill to a finish line. Still, it is difficult to approach this installment with anything but the desire to read it slowly, as our time with Dr. Gregory is now being measured in finite drops that are expiring.
"White brings his own unique “A” game to LINE OF FIRE.... This is a tale that requires but ultimately more than rewards patience. I dare you to stop reading the book once you reach the final third of it."
With that in mind, White brings his own unique “A” game to LINE OF FIRE. The book begins and climaxes with a parallel to the real world, specifically the wildfires that threatened Alan’s (and White’s) hometown of Boulder, Colorado in 2010. Alan, who narrates in the first person, faces an even larger firestorm, one that crosses lines into his professional and personal lives. He and his unlikely friend, Boulder police detective Sam Purdy, share a deadly and devastating secret that is inadvertently revealed to a “John Doe” hospital patient who desperately holds onto a secret of his own. When the man confronts Alan and threatens to reveal all, Alan is faced with a dilemma that challenges his strict ethical standards and endangers everything that is dear to him.
At the same time, Alan has commenced treatment of a new patient, an exotic woman who, in some ways, is a contemporary Scheherazade, revealing a history of her life that is by turns enthralling and extremely disturbing. Her accounts, which always end on an enigmatic note, raise unsettling issues concerning taboos as well as what the role of the therapist may or may not be during the course of treatment. What is significant for Alan, however, is that he slowly begins to realize that this patient did not come to him by accident, and that the problems she has been discussing with him strike closer to his personal life than he had expected. Furthermore, everything connected with Alan will affect him in a very dramatic and irrevocable way. By story’s end, much has changed, and little of it is for the better.
The first half of the book contains a lot of talking. One would expect this in a novel involving psychological suspense as opposed to an action thriller. But what talk it is! Initially, I was waiting for something to happen --- entirely the wrong attitude to bring to the reading of this book. What happens quietly in corners can suddenly leap into the middle of the room, with unexpected results. White spends well-crafted time in setting things up and incrementally ratcheting up the suspense, so that when things begin to go downhill for Alan, the momentum is all but impossible to stop.
This is a tale that requires but ultimately more than rewards patience. I dare you to stop reading the book once you reach the final third of it. And while complete in itself, there are loose ends --- one unobtrusively introduced at the very beginning --- that remains dangling at the end. It may or may not constitute a major plot thread in the final story, which will certainly be strongly anticipated. For now, though, put LINE OF FIRE on your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 17, 2012