Albert L. LeCount
Ever make a move that's come back to haunt you later in life? Ever take a relatively innocuous step one day that ended up spelling tragedy on another; one that possibly resulted in the deaths of numerous colleagues and friends? Well, we certainly hope not -- but that's the frightening premise of Manner of Death, the latest spellbinding psychological romp from New York Times bestselling novelist Stephen White (Critical Conditions) and his character Dr. Alan Gregory.
Although Alan never really considered himself a close friend of Dr. Arnold Dresser, the two did endure their psychology residency together at the University of Colorado way back in 1982; Dresser would always send a friendly Christmas card along each year, and even though Alan never really returned the sentiment, Dresser continued to at least feign an interest in staying somewhat in touch. So when Dresser -- an avid, although not a risk-taking, hiker -- fell to his death during a relatively simple ascent, Alan felt that he really ought to attend the funeral to pay his respects. Little did he suspect that shortly afterward his world would be turned completely upside down.
Following the funeral, Alan and Lauren -- whom Stephen White enthusiasts will recognize as Gregory's tough yet lovable, MS-plagued attorney spouse -- decide to head up the mountains for a visit to their favorite out-of-the-way restaurant. But Alan and Lauren aren't alone on these backwater trails. While the couple is anxiously awaiting the delivery of their tasty nachos, an enigmatic woman approaches their table. She introduces herself as Dr. A. J. Simes, an ex-FBI agent and current private investigator who claims to be working for Arnold Dresser's distressed mother, who fears that her son's death was not an accident at all but a premeditated act of murder. Simes proceeds to alert Alan that over the past decade, numerous members of his psychiatry unit at the University of Colorado have died suspicious deaths. According to Simes, only two members are, in fact, still alive -- Alan and a woman named Dr. Sawyer Sackett, with whom, we soon discover, Alan was involved in a brief but extremely intimate relationship.
Following the initial shock, Lauren is quick to question Simes's credibility. If such is the case, why are we being told by a private investigator other than the FBI? "Manner of death," is Simes's quick and confident response. Apparently, each of Alan's colleagues died in vastly different ways (one was killed in a drive-by shooting, another was horribly burned in a tanning bed accident, another died in a plane crash, etc.). Since FBI profilers believe that most serial murderers exhibit killing trends, to them this situation is nothing more than a series of horrible coincidences.
That's the setup for White's gripping story about hidden identities, shocking truths, love, friendship, and death. White tells his tale with remarkable clarity and skill and really builds the tension well. His characters are very human and three-dimensional as each makes mistakes and exhibits very plausible emotions and concerns in the face of an unknown adversary. The reader is regularly forced to the edge of his or her seat -- this trend increases dramatically during the final 100 pages. One reason is the plotting; not only do our characters not know who their killer is or why he's attempting to end their lives; for a while they don't even know if there really is a killer at all. This situation allows the very human traits of carelessness and denial to raise their ugly and, in this case, potentially deadly heads.
Even if the reader has never read an Alan Gregory thriller before, Manner of Death comes highly recommended. Don't fret -- this was the reviewer's first crack at one too; chances are it won't be his last either.