Stephen White continues to amaze. A writer of journeyman quality from the beginning, he has consistently topped himself with each new installment in the Alan Gregory series, starting with PRIVILEGED INFORMATION in 1991. White never writes the same book twice; he is constantly experimenting with his characters and their surroundings --- sometimes making Gregory, a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado, little more than an observer; occasionally putting him front and center; or even relegating him to a cameo appearance, albeit a pivotal one. It was perhaps with KILL ME that it became impossible to ignore the fact that White’s work all along had been building to a crescendo to which few writers in the genre aspire, let alone reach. And it is with DEAD TIME, his 16th novel, that he takes it up another notch or two. Again.
DEAD TIME puts Gregory front and center in the middle of the story, not as the result of interaction with a client but because his ex-wife Merideth has asked him for a favor. She and her fiancé have retained the services of a woman named Lisa in order to provide them with the child for whom Merideth longs. But the surrogate has gone missing in New York City without explanation. Gregory agrees to investigate, enlisting the help of his friend Sam Purdy, who in turn is in the midst of a suspension from the Boulder, Colorado police department.
Gregory’s relationship with Purdy is touchy at this point in time, and the interplay between the two men as they tentatively reestablish their friendship is worth the price of the book almost by itself. Working from opposite ends, they ultimately discover that Lisa’s disappearance is tied to a Grand Canyon camping trip that occurred some years before and resulted, ironically enough, in the disappearance of another young woman. The trail leads Gregory back across the country to Los Angeles, where the answers to both mysteries --- and terrible danger to all involved --- await.
There were portions of DEAD TIME that put me in the mind of other books and authors. At times it compares favorably to THE RUINS by Scott Smith, though it bears no similarity to that novel. White’s New York sequences are as fine as those set forth by Lawrence Block, and Gregory’s time in Los Angeles reminds one of Michael Connelly’s cinematic view of that area as he puts Harry Bosch through his paces. White’s style, though, is not at all imitative of those writers. He takes a step or two in different directions, exploring the gulf between generations regarding their sexual mores, the complexities of male friendship and the difficulties of marriage.
Ultimately, DEAD TIME is a psychological thriller, and at the heart of every thriller is a villain. This book has a good one --- a great one in fact --- and the author introduces the ultimate villain of the piece with such stunning perfection that it will be difficult to encounter another anytime soon without their being found wanting.
Stephen White, on the strength of DEAD TIME, should be a literary household name on the order of King, Rowling and whoever else you might care to mention. He is that good.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 7, 2011