Martin J. Smith

Jove, June 1998, $5.99
Paperback Original

Reviewed by Joe Obermaier (8/98)

I hate to refer to any novel as a "Summer" read; as if the weather can determine which books are worth our time. But the Summertime, when our attention span seems to shorten as the days get longer and when we can be easily distracted by more trivial pursuits, may be the perfect time to indulge in thrillers that normally wouldn't stand up under closer scrutiny. Perhaps Shadow Image by Martin J. Smith is a diversion best enjoyed now and then on a sandy beach in the blazing sun, and not something to sink our teeth into beside a warm fire on a cold winter's night.

This is the second installment in Martin J. Smith's "Memory Trilogy," dealing with the impact on and use of memory in our criminal justice system. As in his earlier novel, Time Release, the keys to this story are the memories of a central character. Determining the meaning and importance of those memories are what drives the story.

The Underhills are a political dynasty in Pennsylvania. Ford Underhill, the son of former two-term governor Vincent Underhill, is waging a campaign that is sure to earn him the governorship in his own right. Floss Underhill, mother of Ford and wife of Vincent, has just been seriously injured in a plunge into a ravine on the grounds of the family manor. Was this an accident, a suicide attempt, or something more sinister?

Floss, unfortunately, is suffering from advanced Alzheimer's disease and is incapable of telling what happened. Through his work with Alzheimer's patients, memory expert Jim Christensen is able to link the bizarre figures that Floss has painted in a hospital art class to family secrets trapped inside her head.

The primary characters in Shadow Image are interesting and well portrayed. I found the relationship between Christensen, his lover and their children to be engaging and credible. And Floss, as the Underhill matriarch, is an iconoclastic charmer. Unfortunately, the motives of the characters are very obvious, almost to the extreme. And the lesser characters are so two dimensional as to appear to be made of cardboard. At times the book reads like the script to a network Movie of the Week, and a bad one at that.

Constructing a novel around a deceitful political family that is striving to cover up an unseemly past, and is almost eager to eliminate any people who "stand in their way" is somewhat stale and formulaic. The villain of the piece is downright diabolic, which hurts the story's resolution. Villains lose a fascinating aspect of their character if they lack even a little humanity, and it is too easy for a writer to fall back on portraying pure evil instead of developing the part more fully.

As with many stories centered around a conspiracy, the length and breadth of the intrigue is difficult to accept. It's hard to believe any politically savvy family would go to such an extent to silence others. And yet, when it comes to silencing the sleuth, he is handled with kid gloves by comparison. When the District Attorney in the story asks Christensen why "so many people end up dead when you're around," I found myself wondering why the hero was never one of them.

Shadow Image is burdened by a slow start, but the pace does soon pick up. Once the heart of the story gets going, Martin J. Smith keeps the tension at a high level. The novel is an easy blend of a psychological thriller and a medical thriller, with plenty of suspense to move the story along. Mr. Smith also skillfully mixes psychological theory and practice into the story without wearing down the reader or leaving us to lose our way in the jargon. The medical background of Alzheimer's disease is handled gracefully and adroitly.

I'm just not sure Shadow Image really falls into the "mystery" category. For one thing, there is not much of a mystery. An astute reader will have figured out the Underhill's hidden secret fairly early into the book. It becomes so obvious, that I sympathized with the sleuth, Jim Christensen, when late in the book he describes the family's story as "so implausible that even my snooping blew it out of the water." He wonders why the local authorities never figured it out, and so did I.

Shadow Image would really be better described as suspense fiction. It is the kind of tale where the thrill comes from the chase and the adventure, rather than the puzzle. On that level it succeeds admirably. I don't find such suspense fiction to be any better or worse than conventional mysteries, they are just a very different genre. After reading Shadow Image, I found myself longing for a traditional mystery with clues for me to follow, leading to a logical and satisfying resolution. And while I enjoyed the suspense of Shadow Image, I don't feel an overriding need to follow the rest of the series.

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