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by Michael Robotham
Time Warner, March 2004
420 pages
ISBN: 0316725528

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I sat up to the early hours of the morning to finish this book with my eyelids propped open by matchsticks. Michael Robotham has worked on some top UK newspapers, now lives in Australia and has more than a dozen ghostwritten best-sellers under his belt. THE SUSPECT is his first novel -- and a breathtaking debut it is too.

Professor Joe O'Loughlin is a psychologist in London. He appears to have it all -- a good job, a nice house, a beautiful wife and a cute, smart-mouthed daughter. The family are visiting the grave of Joe's Aunt Gracie and as they are carrying out the annual ritual of throwing piles of leaves onto her grave (she was an agoraphobic, and there's a wonderful scene, told in flashback, of Joe's birthday plans for his aunt), Joe sees the police dragging a body out of a grave next to the nearby Grand Union Canal.

But his perfect world threatens to crumble around his ears when a patient, Bobby Moran, begins to hear voices and have strange dreams. Joe starts to wonder if, in fact, Bobby is a murderer. Enter, too, a particularly insistent cop in the form of Detective Inspector Vincent Ruiz. As Joe investigates more, he spirals deeper and deeper into trouble and we start to wonder just how reliable a narrator he is.

Robotham combines dry wit, punchy dialogue and a wonderfully distinctive 'voice' for his hero. Joe is very real, very convincing. The early scenes are sharp but relaxed, often funny, and lull the reader into a false sense of security. I adored the opening scene where Joe is talking a teenager cancer patient down off a rooftop, and the pair end up having a spitting contest onto the crowd below. But the book's pacing and structure is inch-perfect as Joe struggles to clear his name -- and I must admit I never saw the final twist coming, despite adequate clues!

The graveyard scene with the leaves shows Robotham's enviable ability to ink in people and details with the minimum of words but to the maximum effect -- Mr Gravesend, the cemetery caretaker, has been trying to track down the people littering his pristine site with leaves for 15 years, but ends up sharing hot chocolate with Joe and family.

There are virtually no glitches in this debut novel, aside from some slightly odd expressions here and there. I don't know how long Robotham has lived Down Under, but his ear for British vocabulary is a bit off in places. For instance, no one in the UK uses sedan to describe a car. But we really are splitting hairs here -- THE SUSPECT is a fantastic first book and one that will, I hope, bring the author out from behind the ghostwriting mask.

Reviewed by Sharon Wheeler, March 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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