Keith Ablow's lifelong interest has been to determine what markers or kind of trauma brings a person to the breaking point. He has testified as an expert in some of America's most highly publicized trials." He writes both nonfiction (texts and medical tomes) and novels starring his alter ego, Frank Clevenger ("clever avenger" perhaps? But what's in a name?)
Clevenger is a forensic psychiatrist who is a consultant to the Boston police. In Ablow's latest, MURDER SUICIDE, Clevenger is asked to help unravel the events that led to the shooting death of Dr. John Snow, a brilliant fifty-year-old MIT scientist, found dead in an alley on his way to Massachusetts General Hospital. Snow was to undergo a very controversial neurosurgical procedure when he was found dead with a gun near the body. Murder? Suicide?
John Snow, Ph.D. suffered from epilepsy. He was plagued by grand mal seizures from which he would collapse, lose consciousness, and breathe like a bellows. His limbs would jerk wildly, his teeth clamping shut and sometimes tearing through his tongue. When he was 10, his parents, fearing a brain tumor, had him thoroughly examined and his "EEG told the story: clusters of delta and theta electrical spikes shooting through his temporal lobes, sparking up toward his frontal lobes. Bolts of inspiration gone wild. The more intensely he focused on what he loved --- inventing --- the more he suffered.
"His professional career had been amazingly successful in spite of his handicap, but Snow had reached a point in his life when his most important and valuable secret military invention had to be completed --- an invention that could save the world or annihilate it. The decision to undergo brain surgery had been his "plan to free himself from his tangled neurons --- and, quite possibly, from all entanglements. On the one hand, the idea was intoxicating. Snow could have lived the unfettered life of a stranger in a distant land, with no obligations to anyone, no guilt over past sins, nothing defining or limiting him. On the other hand, the question had to be asked how much Snow's freedom would have cost the people who considered him part of their life stories, their realities?" These ponderables lead to one of the major themes Ablow explores in his novel: "Are any of us free to the extent that we are free to move on completely?"
To his doctor, J. T. (Jet) Heller, his young and ambitious neurosurgeon, the only question at hand was how soon could he put his scalpel to work. He promised the inventor that he could cut out the parts of his brain that "clog up" when he concentrates intensely or is at a particularly high level of stress. But the inherent danger in this is possible blindness, deafness, death or worse, living in a vegetative state. But Snow is finished with his family, his mistress, his work, and his partner. He decides to have the surgery and gleefully tells everyone good-bye, whether they understand how final that farewell is or not. He was optimistic about the surgery and had no immediate plans to die --- by his own hand or anyone else's.
When Frank Clevenger begins to untangle the remnants of Snow's life, he finds himself faced with some of his own demons. And the passages depicting the pathos of those struggles are the most moving and finely written in this typical "summer novel." Clevenger has an adopted eighteen-year-old son with a dark past --- a past not much different from Frank's own. As he travels the hallways of the hospital and the alleyways of Snow's life, he sees how much he has sheltered the boy. He exercises a protocol of painful stretching as he begins to understand how letting go a bit will serve to bring them closer. MURDER SUICIDE is a perfect beach book, and Ablow fans will surely not want to miss it.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 7, 2011