Monday, May 21, 2007

Mysteries as Social Conscience

by Julia Buckley

I think one of the great things about mysteries--especially the really great mysteries--is that they give a writer the opportunity to point out flaws in the world, or in humanity, without preaching about it. It can be woven into the story as a part of a detective's growing perception, a cop's disillusionment, an amateur sleuth's enlightenment.

It can also provide a reader with knowledge. I just finished Barbara D'Amato's Death of a Thousand Cuts, and I think it functioned just this way, giving the reader (me) new perceptions not only about autism, but about the theories of Sigmund Freud and the world of psychology. What D'Amato does, brilliantly, is set up a crime that seems almost impossible to solve: a noted psychiatrist is murdered--horribly, vengefully--at a "reunion" of many of his former patients, in the house where he once incarcerated them. While the public knew him as a benevolent, great man, the detectives, Folkestone and Park, find more and more people who thought he was just the opposite; who thought him, in fact, a monster.

Therefore, Folkestone is presented with a terrible dilemma. Half of her suspects are autistic, the other half noted people in the psychiatric profession--former doctors and aides who worked at Hawthorne House (the institution in question). The autistic characters are practically impossible to interview. Some do not speak at all, others speak unintelligibly, and still others speak logically, but without the affect that a detective needs in order to gauge the nuances of emotion. In this setting D'Amato is able to subtly comment on society's perception of things it doesn't understand--like autism. Even her detectives struggle with their reactions to the autistic former patients and how to deal with them.

In addition, D'Amato sets her story in a very real Chicago during a very hot summer, and along with making this setting authentic for the reader (including the presence of a powerful but flawed mayor), she shows how politics affect every investigation in the Chicago police department.

At the root of the story is the idea that Freud was not only wrong, but that those who followed him may have actually damaged their patients by treating what was not treatable with psychoanalysis. In the case of the autistic patients in Hawthorne House, their affliction is known in the present to be biological, but in the past, in the years that they stayed there, it was considered psychological, and Schermerhorn, the murdered psychiatrist, attributed the ailment to cold parenting--placing special blame on the mothers who already felt great distress about their inability to help their children.

With great sensitivity, D'Amato traces the lives of all of the families affected by the Hawthorne House years--their pain and sadness, and the realities of living with autism. In doing so she makes some strong statements about Freud, the responsibilities of psychiatrists, parents, and anyone with authority over a child.

The novel is written with a smoothness that makes one forget they're reading a book at all. I think some writers become too heavy-handed with their message, but D'Amato's book simply makes me think.

And that should be the goal of any mystery.


Lonnie Cruse said...

Wow, great review, Julia. I've read books where the author "intruded" into the story by hammering home his/her particular agenda, and I agree, D'Amato is great at presenting her story without such author intrusion. I read another of her books, not this one, so I'll have to hunt it up. Thanks for the head's up!

Julia Buckley said...

I think you'll enjoy it, Lonnie. But parts will break your heart, especially because you're a mom.