Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Asking for Murder

The third and perhaps final installment in Roberta Isleib's Advice Column mystery series, Asking for Murder (Berkley Prime Crime, 2008), is a very fine testament to the pleasures of familiarity one gains from returning to a solid series. It's always a treat when one of your new favorite authors hits one out of the park. And here, I'm happy to report, Isleib's penned another winner.

Inherent in the etymology of familiarity is the idea of family--and certainly Dr. Rebecca Butterman and the other characters of coastal Connecticut that populate these novels have come to represent a kind of "literary family." Luckily, even readers who enter the series with this book will find uncommon familiarity since Ms. Isleib does an effortless job of evoking characters, settings and ambiance for the uninitiated. But what makes such family/familiarity pleasurable in Asking for Murder?
  1. Isleib has described and immersed us in an environment so real that we only need sketches of description--a busy highway, the hunger pains of a busy professional, a rainy day, the wall decor in a psychologist's office--to bring us into the story. These sketches are the touchstones of another world that help us imagine what it would be like to live/work/play/eat/love there. We jump from touchstone to touchstone, like boulders in a wide river, over the arc of the narrative. And in the context of the novel we are free to imagine the spaces between the rocks upon which the story is built.
  2. We have such a good understanding of our protagonist, Rebecca Butterman that we can begin to anticipate (but not necessarily predict, and this is a fine distinction) how she will react in given circumstances. The art of this fiction, though, is that Rebecca is not merely a pawn run through the maze of a story. She is fundamentally changed by her experience. In Asking for Murder she must learn about a novel type of psychological therapy (sandplay or sand tray therapy, influenced by Carl Jung's emphasis on the subconscious). The reader learns along with Rebecca how this fascinating therapy works. And, Rebecca is always working out her emotional experience through the exercise of writing her advice column.
  3. The supporting cast of characters are integral to the story. Rebecca's psychologist friend, Annabelle Hart, is found badly beaten at the beginning of the story and this is the driving mystery throughout the book: Who would beat Dr. Hart within an inch of her life? As Rebecca attempts to answer that question, she must confront not only Annabelle's family and friends but also her league of patients. No one is free of suspicion. Meanwhile the first (and only) dead body doesn't turn up until more than halfway through. How interesting!
  4. The premise of the story is believable. Because both Dr. Butterman and Dr. Hart are clinical psychologists, we can easily believe that they would frequently be in contact with all manner of "strange" individuals--even ones in their own families. Beyond the premise, there are enough day-to-day happenings in Rebecca's life that we can easily imagine her as we might our friends or ourselves... sleeping, cooking, eating, meeting people, playing with pets, following up on responsibilities, etc.
  5. There are important questions in Rebecca's life that remain unanswered. Since these involve her personal relationships and have little bearing on the solution to the central mystery of this book, the reader is not disappointed that they remain unanswered. Rather, this reader is anxious to find out what happens between Rebecca and Detective Meigs. And what develops between Rebecca and her estranged father? How does her sister, Janice ultimately react? Will Rebecca ever resolve her ambivalent feelings about Mark?
I was more than a little sad to close the final chapter in this book knowing there was not another one waiting. I recently read an online interview with Ms. Isleib wherein she mentioned there were no immediate plans for any more books in this series and that she was at work on a stand-alone novel. It would be a darn shame for mystery lovers if this is Dr. Rebecca Butterman's swan song, but given its fine writing and satisfying resolution, Asking for Murder would not be a disastrous coda to a very confident and well-written mystery series.