by Martin J. Smith
Published by Jove Books
1998, 384 pages
Buy it online
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
"Memories," said English humorist P.G. Wodehouse, "are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them." Certainly members of the Pennsylvania political dynasty at the center of Martin Smith's new psychological thriller would agree, for the recollections they must contend with -- memories of a long-hidden tragedy that could now be revealed through the befogged ruminations of an Alzheimer's patient -- might very well bring their ambitions to a crushing end.
Meet the Underhills, a vaguely Kennedyesque clan that has already spawned one governor and seems on its way to installing another in the chief executive's suite at Harrisburg. They can't afford scandal, but that is certainly what could plague them after Floss Underhill, eccentric 70-year-old matriarch and victim of Alzheimer's, is injured by tumbling into a deep ravine on her Pittsburgh estate. Her son, gubernatorial candidate Ford Underhill, bruits about the possibility that, in a rare lucid moment, she actually tried to commit suicide in order to end her losing battle against her disease. Or perhaps Floss' husband, former two-term governor Vincent Underhill II -- the last person to see her before her fall -- pushed her into that ravine out of sheer frustration at having to care for her constantly.
In either instance, the family will need skilled legal assistance. So they turn to Brenna Kennedy, an ambitious Pittsburgh criminal-defense attorney practiced in handling high-profile cases involving disabled elderly folks. Greatly flattered by the Underhills' faith in her abilities and their hints that they might back her someday for a political run of her own, Brenna agrees to do whatever she can to contain the situation and prevent it from being exploited by the local district attorney, one of Ford Underhill's principal rivals. To help, she enlists her lover, psychologist Jim Christensen (introduced in Smith's debut novel, Time Release). An authority on repressed memory, Christensen already knows Floss from an art therapy class he has been observing and thinks that her representational paintings might provide some clue as to what really happened on the night of her "accident."
"You just never know with Alzheimer's...," Christensen tells Brenna. "Sometimes the images that surface in their work are incredibly telling." Of particular value may be Floss' recent series of horse paintings. Were they simply inspired by her lifelong love of riding? Or do they relate to an event from the past, something that the other Underhills would kill to keep buried?
Smith, a Southern California author and former Pulitzer-nominated journalist, has already proved that he can concoct plausible and gripping tales of mounting suspense. Time Release, in which Christensen and a washed-up cop named Grady Downing go after a serial murderer whose weapon of choice is poisoned pain killers, was an unexpectedly rewarding read among paperback originals last year. The author's interest in memory loss and the means by which those memories might be recovered accurately -- or, in Time Release, manipulated by investigators -- was unique and promised a wide range of complexly plotted sequels.
That promise is fulfilled with Shadow Image, though not flawlessly. Building a story around a Machiavellian political tribe that's willing to cover up any indiscretions or bury anyone who stands in their way is a cliché in this genre. Floss Underhill is a truly engaging, rather Lauren Bacallish figure, a woman too ornery to follow her husband to Harrisburg after his election and too set in her ways to give up cigars, even as she forgets every other link with her history. However, some of the secondary characters, especially Ford Underhill's wife Leigh, an unacknowledged string-puller behind her hubby's career (think Nancy Reagan with a blonde ponytail), are straight from crime-fiction central casting. And the book's pulse-quickening conclusion, tied conveniently to Pennsylvania's Democratic nominating convention for governor, at which Ford Underhill is expected to reap the fruits of his vigorous campaigning, reads a bit too much like it was meant to attract the eyes of Hollywood filmmakers.
Yet even Jonathan Kellerman might be jealous of Smith's ability to integrate psychological practice and theory into his yarns without jarring result. His explanations of how Alzheimer's patients process memories doesn't require a Ph.D. to understand, and particularly moving and illuminating are Smith's allusions to "caregiver burnout" -- an increasingly familiar phenomenon among people who nurse ailing family members over long periods.
Smith's considerable plotting talents are as much in evidence here as they were in Time Release. He carefully parallels Brenna's work in defense of the Underhills with Christensen's discoveries about the roots of Floss' artistic imagery, until they both realize that the matriarch's recent tumble was just another episode in a long and painful drama. A drama that intensifies with each calculatedly slow drip of information -- about a groundskeeper who may have heard something significant at the time of Floss' fall, about the fate of Floss' favorite horse, and about the death of Ford Underhill's young son three years earlier. Before the book's close, an astute reader will have figured out the full extent of the Underhills' darkest secret, but should have enjoyed enough plot tangles and glimpses into the field of Alzheimer's research to feel satisfied nonetheless.
Shadow Image is being marketed as a diverting summer read. But if Martin Smith could just put more effort into crafting original second-string players and concentrate his attention on small conflicts (like the developing career tensions between Brenna and Christensen) rather than on flashy, movie-appropriate scenes, his future novels might be something better. They could be -- dare I say it? -- truly memorable.
Seattle resident J. KINGSTON PIERCE is crime fiction editor of January Magazine and the author of several nonfiction books, including America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997) and San Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) .
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