Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Deadly Advice

With Deadly Advice (Berkley Prime Crime, 2007), Roberta Isleib has introduced one of the best mystery series to appear since Susan Wittig Albert introduced the China Bayles series in the early 1990s. We can only hope that Isleib's series will run as long as Albert's (currently in its 17th installment).

Deadly Advice introduces Dr. Rebecca Butterman, a Guilford, Connecticut psychologist who sees clients in private practice, moonlights at Yale, and writes a pseudonymous relationship advice column, "Ask Dr. Aster." Newly divorced, Butterman has bought a townhouse condominium in an association full of singles and retirees. It is quite a cozy environment with all the requisite characters (the handyman, the nosy neighbor, the widows, single professionals, etc.), until 34-year-old Madeline Stanton--Dr. Butterman's neighbor--turns up dead in her bathtub of an apparent suicide. Butterman, unnerved by the prospect that such a horrible thing could happen on the other side of the wall shared by their respective units, begins to suspect that Madeline's death may not have been a suicide. Madeline's mother, Isabel, thinks the same thing, and persuades Dr. Butterman to do some amateur sleuthing to uncover the real truth. Madeline may not have been the person her family, or neighbors, thought she was...

Isleib works in the Ask Dr. Aster column angle quite skillfully, so that the subject of the columns mirrors the current preoccupations of Dr. Butterman (the singles dating scene, relationships between children and parents, etc.). We also learn more about Dr. Butterman's life through the various interactions she has with her best friends Angie and Annabelle; her neighbors; her sister, Janice; and various clients and colleagues. There is also an intriguing male police detective, Meigs, who we are sure to meet in subsequent books. Readers will also appreciate Isleib's informative, but never preachy, insights into the human psyche. The many unexpected twists and cliffhangers keep the pages turning quickly, and there are enough red herring suspects for a fiendish fish market.

Deadly Advice unequivocally marks the debut of a major series by an extremely talented and inventive author. Butterman is a real character, confident and vulnerable but likeable. We'll want to get to know her more. Isleib's writing is so smooth is goes down like a fine blended Scotch; the last drop isn't quite enough and it leaves us wanting another round.