Alice LaPlante’s new psychological thriller, “A Circle of Wives,” begins with a plastic surgeon found dead in a Palo Alto hotel. He’s a big guy and has a few bruises on him, as well as the mark of a needle on his back.
But the real beginning starts with Samantha Adams, a young cop on the Stanford University campus who has recently been promoted to detective. “I am nothing if not irresolute,” Samantha admits at the start of this story. “Excuse the double negative.” And then she says, “In addition to being irresolute, I’m also a quitter.” So the novel begins with two sets of ambiguities: a man who may or may not have been murdered and a mystery to be solved by a woman whose heart may or may not be in the game.
Something soon happens to take this tentative little crime out of the ordinary. The socially prominent dead doctor, John Taylor, had been married to his snobbish wife, Deborah, for 34 years. Trouble is, he had also been married to an aging hippie-chick who works as an accountant, a pediatric oncologist who lives down in L.A. and possibly more women.
As Samantha uncovers all these facts, she goes from amused to appalled to wistful. The doctor seems to have been living life to the fullest; there was nothing irresolute about him. In addition to his elaborate marital arrangements, he did only pro bono work, operating on facial deformities. Evidently, he’d rather die than do a tummy tuck for money, which brings up another complication: The doctor and his first wife are filthy rich, although she says they both came from dirt-poor families. So when did he make all that money? He seems to have been supporting one wife’s brother in various get-rich schemes, and he bought her a $2 million home with a beautiful garden. All this, of course, contributes to the mystery, but these are questions that never get answered.
The story is told in a circular manner, with Samantha and each of the wives taking a turn, confiding in the reader, telling bits and pieces of their lives. Deborah’s life revolves around her beautiful home and her position in the community. To hear her tell it, she fell out of love with her husband, and he, craving affection, took up with other women. She’s the one who thought up the bigamy arrangement because appearances mean everything to her.
The other wives have their own secrets and sorrows. One raised two boys as a single mom and takes care of a ne’er-do-well relative. Another grew up in a small Southern town where her brother was molested by a parish priest. She never expected to meet a decent man, but then she met the doctor. His death and the subsequent investigation will change all their lives.
Who killed the doctor? I’m not telling, but I finished reading this absorbing novel after 11 last night. That’s the mark of a successful mystery.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
By Alice LaPlante
Atlantic Monthly. 310 pp. $25