Kevin O’Brien is amazing. He continues a long and prolific run as a thriller author by finding new ways to explore and utilize familiar themes to great and frightening effect. His last few novels have been christened with one-word titles --- VICIOUS, DISTURBED, TERRIFIED and now UNSPEAKABLE --- that evoke both the worst of the human condition and the natural reaction to it. He breaks new ground, though, with his latest effort, which may be his best work to date.
O’Brien’s books feature strong but flawed protagonists in peril who ultimately must rely on their own wits and inner strength to save themselves from a seemingly unstoppable threat. And yes, that is a great template, not only because of what it promises the reader but also because of what an author can do with it. O’Brien approaches it as he does all of his books, treating it as if he has something to prove (his impressive canon notwithstanding) and pulling out all the stops to do so.
"O’Brien combines sharp detail with twists, turns and, yes, a bit of misdirection here and there to provide the reader with plenty of edge-of-the-seat suspense and, at the heart of the book, a puzzling mystery that leads to an ironic, satisfying ending."
The damsel who suddenly finds herself in the jaws of distress in UNSPEAKABLE is Olivia Barker, a hypnosis therapist who notes early on that she herself is afflicted with many of the conditions --- smoking and being somewhat overweight, to name but two --- for which her clients come to her for treatment. Nothing can quite prepare her, though, for a patient named Russ Leander, who enters her office on a late afternoon in early October. Russ has misrepresented himself, from his name (which is actually Colin Cox) to his age to his reason for seeking treatment. Once placed under hypnosis, he becomes someone else, a psycho named “Wade” who threatens her and admits to having committed murder.
Olivia is able to rouse Colin out of his hypnotic state but is not sure how much of what has occurred is based in reality. It turns out that Colin was a child actor whose mother burned through all his earnings with considerable speed. Now reduced to appearances where he cuts the ribbon at supermarket openings or poses for photos at fanboy conventions, Colin has difficulty dealing with life, particularly when mocked by his peers at school.
As the narrative flashes back some three months before Colin’s fateful appointment with Olivia in October, it is revealed that both Colin and Olivia are troubled souls. The primary question is whether Colin has a multiple personality disorder, one that leads him to succumb to homicidal impulses. What is most disturbing is that Colin seems to have knowledge of details surrounding certain murders, past and present, that only he could have if he indeed were present at the time of the slayings. Olivia is in a quandary as a result; her silence regarding what she knows may be protecting an innocent, confused patient...or a violent killer. And if she is doing the latter, she could find herself to be the next victim on a long and old list.
O’Brien combines sharp detail with twists, turns and, yes, a bit of misdirection here and there to provide the reader with plenty of edge-of-the-seat suspense and, at the heart of the book, a puzzling mystery that leads to an ironic, satisfying ending. His seemingly inexhaustible supply of characters on both sides of the fence between good and evil serve him well once again, and if you think you can guess the ending, O’Brien’s fans will be the first to tell you that attempting to do so is all but impossible. Put UNSPEAKABLE at the top of your packing list as you prepare for vacation this summer.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 31, 2013