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by Maureen O'Brien
Time Warner, December 2004
288 pages
ISBN: 0316725455

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Maureen O'Brien's latest book featuring Detective Inspector John Bright is another winner. EVERY STEP YOU TAKE is a complex psychological mystery, the story of a man who is unable to deal with the changes life brings in his 40th year. It is the story of secret lives, of fantasies and dreams hidden from the world, of pain and fear and longing that cannot be voiced.

Bright is on leave from work, living at home with his mother as he regroups after his lover's murder and is reacquainted with his childhood friend George. Bright watches as George descends into obsession. Bright is actually not a very large presence in the book, and serves as an almost distant observer, recording events for the reader's eye. It is not until the second half of the book that he becomes more involved and in fact, solves the mystery thanks to his attention, compassion, persistence and timely action.

George is a successful London accountant who, for 15 years, goes to work every day and spends weekends in the country with his mother and brother. Almost overnight, his life spins out of control when his firm is merged with a larger agency and he becomes obsessed with a small, young, blonde woman who reminds him of his former wife.

George is a big man in every respect, physically at least -- big, bumbling feet, oversized hands, tall and broad in the chest. Intellectually, he is brilliant and has a gift with numbers, but before long it is clear that he is emotionally crippled and sexually immature, socially withdrawn and almost autistic. George guards every interaction with others, watching whether his words and actions are appropriate. He is not alone in his oddness and before long it is clear that his small family is disabled as well - his mother is bitter and angry, unable to love and his brother is unable to speak.

O'Brien's writings of madness and obsession are striking and all too realistic for comfort. The reader moves between a superficial normalcy and George's growing madness, observing the ordinariness of his actions and hearing the inner chaos of his thoughts: "as he heaved it (the lawnmower) up and down the garden, his brain scooted about in wild directions", "the writhing snake pit in his head" and "he felt mad, cracking; he saw cracks running all over the pink walnut coils of his brain."

George will lose almost every vestige of his daily routine as his involvement with young Kylie/Polly becomes more fantastic and at the same time, more real. John Bright is George's touchstone, and at every contact, George returns to some sense of reality, if only for a brief time.

It is ironic that it is George's brother Kevin, unable to speak, who is one of the most communicative and most believable characters in the book. It is Kevin who is O'Brien's unlikely hero, transformed by love into a person of strength and courage. His physical beauty draws others to him, and his keen sense of innocence and purity is a signal to the reader of who can be trusted and who is evil. Isolated from the world by his disability, Kevin cannot speak intelligibly, but he has a capacity for love and human relationships that is unusual. Kevin too has secrets, not intentionally kept, but secret because of his inability to speak, and his casual dismissal by almost all who come in contact with him.

The confusion of identity and person, of reality and fantasy is notable throughout this mystery. The secret, double lives and hidden pain of almost every character result in a fine, tension-filled progression towards the inevitable conclusion, the death of an innocent that will bring madness to light and redeem those lost to suffering.

EVERY STEP YOU TAKE is Maureen O'Brien's seventh novel, only five of which have so far been made available in the US. Five of her mysteries feature Detective Inspector John Bright. O'Brien's writing is fast paced, intelligent, and thrilling though she does not depend on sensationalism, violence or fear to plot her mysteries. Both male and female characters are well developed and have depth and plausibility. O'Brien is multi-talented, and her writing reflects her skill and experience in the theatre, television and radio and it would be easy to imagine her works on the large or small screen.

Reviewed by Maureen Battistella, December 2004

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