I already know how I am going to spend 2003 --- well, part of 2003. I'm going to pass a lot of the time going through Stephen White's bibliography. I was only familiar in passing with his work and THE PROGRAM has been on my list of books to read practically since the day it came out, but I never got to it. I'm going to remedy that oversight later this week. Taking care of that business went to the top of my punch list after reading WARNING SIGNS.
White is a psychologist who brings his knowledge and experience to the forefront through a fictional creation named Dr. Alan Gregory. Gregory lives in Boulder, Colorado, a city that had lived in the shadow of its big brother, Denver, until the murder of JonBenet Ramsey thrust the city and its police department kicking and screaming into the national conscience. The point of view that the reader encounters is primarily Gregory's first person, though the omniscient third person steps in occasionally to help bear witness to those events of which Gregory is unaware. Gregory often finds himself wrestling with ethical dilemmas, usually involving confidentiality. He is a strong enough character and White a strong enough writer to be wrong but to keep going.
White also has created an extremely strong and able supporting cast. Lauren Gregory is Alan's wife and an assistant Boulder District Attorney, who is afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Sam Purdy, a Boulder police detective and a hard-edged but likable realist, is a perfect foible to Alan's theoretical outlook; he also happens to be his best friend. The relationship, though improbable, has an air of realism to it that not only adds another bit of irresistibility to the setting but also subtly demonstrates the depth of White's talent. Lucy Tanner is Purdy's assistant, an enigma in the making. Then there's Cozier Maitlin, a Boulder defense attorney, who is, in every sense of the word, a character.
WARNING SIGNS begins at a crime scene, with the crime being the murder of Royal Peterson, Boulder County's controversial District Attorney and Lauren Gregory's boss. Tanner is almost immediately charged with the murder, but White does not tell us why right away. If a lesser writer did this, it would leave the reader frustrated, unhappy and unfulfilled. In White's hands, however, this is a plot device that works. We're sure --- well, kind of sure --- that Tanner didn't murder Peterson, so the mystery, at least for a little while, is why she has been charged.
This gives White the room to set up an even larger mystery concerning who is planting bombs in the Boulder and Denver areas and why. A patient of Alan Gregory's seems to hold the key, but Gregory is on the horns of an ethical dilemma. How deep should he dig and how much can --- and should --- be revealed to the police? When the bombings seem to somehow be related to Royal Peterson, the motive is connected to an event in the past with ties that lead directly to Lauren. Alan Gregory soon finds himself questioning his motives and his professional judgment. No matter what he decides, those he loves may be placed in terrible danger.
White's talent is multifaceted. There are no characters here, not even the bad guys, who are entirely unsympathetic. Gregory remains likable even when one is jumping up and down, screaming at him "You're wrong!" as he goes about his difficult business on the printed page. His story, in the meantime, is intricately plotted along two tracks that cross just often enough to be believable and not gratuitous. And, while it is not necessary to read the previous Alan Gregory books to appreciate WARNING SIGNS, you'll still want to. White is well on his way to becoming a household name. Catch up with him now, while there is still time.
"The sign above the workbench in the explosives shed read, 'Safety is the product of planning, discipline, and control. If you plan well, deploy with discipline, and control your charges, you will be safe.' But what if you don't care if you're safe? What if you're willing to go out with the blast?">
There are people out there with a mission so personal, so important, that their own lives are incidental to the larger cause. Over the past several months the world has witnessed the awful destruction such zealots can wreak. But here these words aren't found in an al Qaeda compound. They're found in a shed used by a disenchanted young man not a decade out of high school near Boulder, Colorado, a shed filled with assorted bomb components. He believes that he has been cheated by the court system --- his mother's death unpaid for, the responsible parties inadequately punished. He hooks up with another angry youth as ill used by American justice as himself, and the local District Attorney is the first to die, bludgeoned to death in his own home.
In Colorado the ghosts of Columbine linger, a tragedy some say might have been averted had folks recognized the signals that foreshadowed the violence. Did the children leave hints of what they were about to do? Could anyone have guessed their horrific plans? Fortunately, in WARNING SIGNS, one mother discovers information about her child that terrifies her to the point of panic. Torn by opposing allegiances, she seeks the help of Dr. Alan Gregory, a clinical psychologist. What she discloses embroils him in a fierce struggle between himself and his medical ethics. Many lives could be in danger, but does patient confidentiality preclude him from reporting what he suspects? If that isn't bad enough, he faces a worse dilemma yet: Some of the potential targets are people he cares about. Afraid to take action, but more afraid not to, Dr. Gregory weighs the pluses and minuses, the potential of ruining his career is not the worst of the consequences he fears.
For much of the book we know who's involved and a lot of what they're doing, but that in no way diminishes the constant tension. There are more twists and turns in the story than a mountain road in the Rockies. The author grabs your attention early and doesn't let go. Each chapter builds with a nerve-wracking crescendo toward the unsuspected conclusion. When the finger ultimately points out the DA's murderer, you're bound to be surprised. Who would have guessed? Motives abound and alibis endure. You can check and recheck the dark corners for clues. You may comprise lists and remember myriad details. Still, the solution will shock you.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 1, 2003