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Brit Wit

By Patrick Anderson,
whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers@aol.com
Monday, January 31, 2005; Page C02


By Michael Robotham

Doubleday. 360 pp. $24.95

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When we first meet Joe O'Loughlin, he is poised on the roof of a London hospital, trying to talk a young cancer patient out of jumping. He succeeds, gets his picture in the papers and is a hero for a day or two. We learn that Joe is a 42-year-old psychologist with a lovely wife, Julianne, and an adorable daughter, Charlie. Even though Joe is in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, he looks like someone who has it all. We and he are being set up, of course, because this gripping first novel, already a bestseller in England, is about to turn Joe's placid life into a nightmare.

Because Joe has counseled prostitutes on health and safety issues, a detective named Ruiz asks him to examine the body of a dead woman who may have been a prostitute. Joe recognizes the woman, who is not a prostitute but a nurse named Catherine McBride, whom he had known earlier in his career. She was severely beaten and tortured. Joe does not immediately tell the detective that he knew the woman; that is his first mistake. He continues with his work, his patients. One woman suffers from gephyrophobia: She fears crossing bridges because they might collapse. Bridges don't collapse, but lives do. Another patient is a big, angry man called Bobby, a borderline schizophrenic who is arrested for attacking a woman on the street. One day Joe receives a letter from Catherine, the dead woman, protesting her love for him. The letter makes no sense, but it and other developments make Ruiz suspect Joe of killing the woman. One problem is that Joe has no alibi for the night Catherine was killed because he spent it with another woman, but he won't tell Ruiz lest his wife find out.

You see where this is going. Joe, the "suspect" of the title, is charged with murder, and for a time we don't know if he did it or not. If he did, he's been lying to us in his first-person narrative, but that is not unknown in crime fiction. Joe, protesting his innocence and increasingly desperate, begins to suspect that his patient Bobby is involved in Catherine's murder. Bobby tells him about dreams that seem to describe the murder, and he is living two very different lives. Thus, the killer might be Joe, or it might be Bobby, but there are other candidates as well. Joe's oldest friend, Jock, a doctor who has long lusted for Joe's wife, is acting strangely. The woman Joe had the affair with has a dark past and a lot of anger, and if you remember the plot of "Presumed Innocent," which "Suspect" in some ways resembles, you might even wonder about Joe's lovely wife. Plus there are other suspicious characters lurking about, including the good-looking plumber who is charging Joe and Julianne a fortune to fix their heating system. (Could Brit lit in a century have advanced from "the butler did it" to "the plumber did it"?)

The plot is not a new one -- Respectable Citizen Wrongly Accused -- but Michael Robotham handles it with unusual skill as he has us suspecting one person and then another. In time Joe becomes convinced that someone is conspiring to destroy his life for reasons he doesn't understand. Eluding the police, he does his own detective work and finds a horror story deep in the past that has led to an outpouring of revenge.

Robotham's novel is taut and fast-moving, but he finds time for an occasional pithy quote or droll digression. Joe recalls a nativity play during his childhood that ended in a brawl and national headlines: "VIRGIN MARY'S FATHER ARRESTED." Around Christmas, Joe's crusty old father greets him at the door with, "I thought you were the blasted carol singers. . . . Can't stand them. None of them can hold a tune in a bucket." Joe encounters a merchant seaman in a Liverpool bar who says things such as "She was some Irish Catholic shopgirl, with big hips and a ripcord in her knickers" and "If it were raining soup, Lenny would be stuck with a fork in his hand." The author quotes H.L. Mencken's ever-useful dictum that for every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong. Then Joe goes on to say: "If evolution had been about simple answers we would all have bigger brains and not watch You'veBeen Framed or smaller brains and not invent weapons of mass destruction. Mothers would have four arms and babies would leave home after six weeks. We would all have titanium bones, UV-resistant skin, X-ray vision and the ability to have permanent erections and multiple orgasms." Trust a crafty Brit to slip a Utopian vision into his thriller.

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