James Hayman: “My name is Dr. Jenifer White . I am sixty-four years old. I have dementia. My son , Mark, is twenty-nine. My daughter, Fiona, twenty-four. A caregiver, Magdalena, lives with me.”
This is the opening paragraph of the front jacket copy of one of the most original, beautifully written and genuinely frightening murder mysteries I’ve read in years. Titled Turn of Mind, the book is a debut novel by a writer named Alice LaPlante who teaches creative writing at Stanford and San Francisco State University. LaPlante’s previous fiction consisted of short stories published in literary journals like Epoch and the Southwestern Review.
Imagine a murder mystery largely narrated in the voice and thoughts of the suspected and likely murderer, a once distinguished orthopedic surgeon who specialized in surgery of the hand but who is now descending into advanced Alzeimer’s Disease. The suspect, a woman named Jennifer White, has no idea whether or not she committed the crime. At times she thinks she may have. At other times she thinks she might not have. As often as not she’s not even aware that the victim of the crime is actually dead. Or that her husband James is also dead. Or, as the book progresses, even who her own children are.
Still the evidence against Dr. White as the killer seems compelling. The victim, named Amanda O’Toole, was, before her death, an imperious and controlling woman in her seventies who lived a few doors down from Dr. White in an upscale Chicago neighborhood. In spite of O’Toole’s bristly personality and their frequent disagreements O’Toole and Dr. White are described as lifelong best friends. Each had keys to the other’s house. O’Toole was the godmother of the Whites’ two children, Mark and Fiona.
The victim is already dead when the book opens. Her body was found lying in a pool of blood. The cause of death was a blow to the head. White and O’Toole were heard arguing loudly shortly before the killing. Even more damning for White, the hand surgeon, is the fact that four of the fingers of O’Toole’s right hand were carefully and expertly amputated after her death for no apparent reason. Later in the book a Saint Christopher’s medal belonging to White turns up. It is found to have traces of O’Toole’s blood on it.
What makes this book so compelling and frankly unforgettable, however, is not the details of the crime or the work of the cop in charge, a dogged and determined woman named Detective Luton. It is not even the ultimate solution to the murder. Rather it is the beautifully constructed portrait of the disintegration of a once brilliant mind belonging to a character we come to know and care for.
A group blog on this site this weekend will have us all tell of the scariest books we’ve ever read. While Dr. White is no Hannibal Lechter, in many ways she is more frightening. The descent into Alzheimer’s Alice LaPlante describes so beautifully is a condition we all fear for ourselves. It is one that many of us have experienced first hand watching the slow disintegration of elderly parents or others we care for. It makes an absolutely brilliant choice to wrap around a tale of murder and deceit.