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DEEP INTO THE DARK's title is the name of a psychology tome about PTSD that Afghani vet Sam Easton's shrink keeps on her bookshelf. It's also the name of a cult film that Hans Hesse, a film-maker who worked in LA, made big bucks on. Now Hans's son Rolf seeks to follow in dad's footsteps. Thereby hangs a tale, or at least let us say that that title, which moves between an actual disorder and our use of mass entertainment to explore fear—is the glue that somewhat holds this lanky novel together.
The real glue is Sam Easton's journey from a meeting with an IED in Afghanistan, to living with permanent disfigurement on the outside, and on the inside the migraines and flashbacks which are the calling cards of PTSD. Sam talks through his stages of grieving with his psychiatrist but moves from victim to friend in his attempts to help his coworker first ditch her abusive boyfriend and then dodge an increasingly creepy and violent stalker who breaks into her apartment and leaves roses. But let's look at the rest of the cast:
Dramatis personae: Sam Easton, disfigured Afghani War vet with PTSD who works at a bar called the Pearl; Sam's mom Vivian, a widow; Sam's ex, Yukiko, who found living with her damaged husband too hard; Sam's psychiatrist, Dr Frolich, who explains, somewhat laboriously, the processes by which Sam copes; Melody Traeger, ex-punk-rocker who hit bottom doing drugs and living homeless and who now works at the Pearl and is clawing her way back to life; Melody's controlling boyfriend, but not for long; Detective Margaret Nolan, LAPD, tracking a serial killer and grieving the death of her brother, killed in Afghanistan; Nolan's overbearing partner Al Crawford and her colleague, Remy Beaudreau, who has the hots for her; Rolf Hesse, a punky immature filmmaker wannabe who actually knows a little too much about Melody and Sam; Sam's former commanding officer Captain Andrew Greer and Greer's colleague, General Leland Varney.
As readers, we are mostly lodged in Sam's mind as he struggles mightily with horrible nightmares that might be real flashbacks or might be the inventions of a tormented mind. But Sam keeps his appointments with Dr. Frolich, and he assumes a caring role when Melody's creep of a boyfriend blacks her eye in a jealous rage. Sam's journey to wellness is one plotline. Meanwhile, as we visit with LAPD, we follow the steps to uncovering a serial killer and the steps by which Det. Nolan overcomes her distrust of others enough to accept a date with a coworker. Plotline number two. Plotline number three is when schmoozy Rolf the filmmaker begins begging Sam to play a part in his rather puerile slasher film. In plotline four, people close to Sam and Melody suddenly start dying or at least get bashed over the head; unfortunately these dead people do not fall under the same modus operandi as the serial killer uses. And there's something that Captain Greer knows and Sam doesn't. Whether Captain Greer is on the up-and-up or not, let me call this plotline four and a half.
Our text switches between these four-and-one-half plotlines, the way a television whodunit keeps pausing for a station break. When cutting between plots is done skillfully, it enlightens all of pieces of the composite. When plot-juggling goes awry, as it sometimes does here, readers may witness some pieces wind up on the ground.
The very syntax mirrors this novel's trouble with plotting. On the first page, we are treated to third person, second person, indicative mood, imperative mood, and both active and passive voices, all within a very few sentences. It is true that a thriller must be thrilling, but thrilldom is not created by a rapid dissolve between plots. Nor is a thriller created just by inviting a psychiatrist onstage to translate the content of people's nightmares. A good thriller requires a very deft weaving between the outer world and the inner world through which we see and encounter those things we are afraid of. Unfortunately, killing everyone in sight and throwing in the psycho-babble so that we understand that those murders are meant to play on our fear of dying do not a thriller make.
§ Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, where she teaches American literature and remains a fan of the well-turned whodunit.
Reviewed by Cathy Downs, January 2021
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