Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Fractured Man by Juliet Conlin

Juliet Conlin's debut novel opens with a bang. On a Christmas evening in 1919 Elliot Taverley walks into his domineering father's office to find him holding a gun to his head and, as carol singers fill the air outside, the old man pulls the trigger.

One year later we find Elliot, a young psychiatrist with a passion for the fledging science of graphology, working late into the evening in a church-sponsored clinic, avoiding the pull of the festive period and an overdue visit to his father's grave. Distraction comes in the form of a new patient, unscheduled but so desperate for help that Elliot can't turn him away. Raphael has a strange and intriguing problem, a disorder which is prompted by his reaction to handwriting and which brings on periods of dissociative behaviour.

The use of graphology in diagnosing psychiatric illness is a passion of Elliot's and he sees Raphael as a useful case study, as well as a tormented soul, but he is difficult to pin down, unwilling to discuss his past and what might have triggered this malady. Other patient's problems press in but Elliot's interest in Raphael is becoming all consuming, something which doesn't go unnoticed among his colleagues and friends.

Outwardly Elliot is everything a man with his calling should be, empathic and capable, genuinely committed to his patients, and his life is good; he has a promising career and an upcoming marriage to fiancée Helena, a free-spirited poet of Jazz Age sensibilities. Inwardly though Elliot bears terrible emotional scars, both parents have died in quick succession following the death of his charismatic and dangerous older brother Ed, a casualty of World War I who has overshadowed Elliot since boyhood, and as Raphael's treatment continues it emerges that Elliot himself is the one in need of healing.

The early days of psychiatry are fertile ground for crime writers more interested in excavating the deeper layers of the human spirit than just another dead body and Conlin has clearly researched the subject thoroughly, writing with a great sensitivity towards the conflict between the interior and exterior lives of her characters. The Fractured Man is a confident, well crafted debut, atmospheric and full of quiet menace.

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