A Cure for Madness

Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-94) is best known, if he's known at all, as the author of Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter), one of the most endearing collections in the pantheon of children's literature. Clare Dudman's historical novel 98 Reasons for Being (Viking, $25.95) reveals the man responsible for those stories and weaves a new mythology about his time in charge of a mid-19th-century Frankfurt mental asylum.

The novel is meticulously researched, as a 58-page bibliography attests, and constructed from third-person narration and first-person stream-of-consciousness. Dudman also invents and incorporates a number of historical documents that nudge the story along. Those include private letters, a phrenology report, an excerpt from a treatise on freethinking and of course snippets of Hoffmann's verse, upon which Dudman builds her clever tale.

When the young Hannah Meyer refuses to speak and stops eating or sleeping, her mother leaves her in the care of Dr. Hoffmann. Even his most radical methods -- shockheaded, indeed -- won't get her to open up. As readers, we access some of her jumbled thoughts and can slowly piece together the trauma, perhaps related to a lost lover and the local persecution of Jews, that's responsible for her condition.

When Hoffmann tells Hannah about his own troubles, she begins to respond, and together they seem to play a role in the invention of psychoanalysis. There's a lot to enjoy here, particularly how Hoffmann's and Hannah's stories -- history and mythology -- come crashing together so skillfully.

Tracking a Dead Spy

Haggai Carmon's Triple Identity: An Intelligence Thriller (Steerforth, $24.95) sports all the intrigue and plot machinations you'd expect from an author with professional ties to the Department of Justice. There's even a foreword by an anonymous former spy for the Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency.

The hero, Dan Gordon, also formerly of Mossad and now a lawyer for the U.S. government, is assigned to find a criminal named DeLouise, who used three different national identities to steal $90 million. That he turns up dead in the book's first sentence makes the money trail that much harder for Gordon to trace. The complications that follow involve the sale of nuclear materials to Iran and a Colombian cartel whose drug money disappeared along with DeLouise.

It sounds like a promising thriller, but maybe it's too authentic. Verisimilitude is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to the detailed legalities of international finance. Real-life espionage isn't very sexy. Second, by the time Gordon meets the love interest, DeLouise's hot nuclear-scientist daughter, Ariel, we've been numbed by his lack of personality and the soggy cardboard prose.

"I wasn't sure what motivated me most: my original assignment to retrieve the money DeLouise had stolen, to gather intelligence for the forthcoming joint American-Israeli operation in Munich, or, as much as I hated to admit it, my growing personal interest in Ariel." It's usually a bad sign when the hero doesn't know if he's more interested in administrative details or the beautiful girl. *

Andrew Ervin is a frequent contributor to Book World.