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Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo

November 16, 2014 3 comments

Phantom-Limb-A-Daniel-Rinaldi-Mystery-908738-2c2ad9425128f8704862

In the medical world, one of the more unusual psychosomatic conditions is phantom limb pain. This is where an amputee continues to “feel” the presence of the missing limb and experiences a range of sensations from a mild itch that can’t be scratched to quite severe pain. This fourth book in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi is called Phantom Limb by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2014) deals with both the physical and its mirror image psychological condition. One of the characters we meet reenlisted and lost a major part of his leg in Afghanistan. It should not surprise us that one of the many problems he has to confront is pain from the missing limb. However Rinaldi, our protagonist with the hero syndrome, has a comparable problem that just happens to manifest in potentially self-destructive behaviour.

As I write this, I confess to watching the fifth episode of the television series The Flash. Barry Allen is the type of man who runs into burning buildings (or up them) to save people because, (a) he can do so without exposing himself to too much risk, and (b) he wants to help people. Daniel Rinaldi has the latter motivation, but lacks the superpowers to be able to act in this way with impunity. Indeed, in this series, he finds himself attacked in a variety of different ways and nearly always ends up injured to some degree. The question is therefore why he’s driven to embrace danger. The answer is probably that he has, to some extent, given up on life. This loosens his inhibitions and enables him to confront danger to save others, not caring as much as he should whether he survives. This is not bravery and, so far as those around him are concerned, is not something that earns him real praise and recognition. It’s also distinguishable from the acts of a parent or lover who sacrifices him or herself to save a child or partner. That’s a much more immediately emotional reaction when a loved one is threatened. So the ending of this book suggests the basic cause of this behaviour and, more importantly, gives him a way in which he might scratch the itch on his metaphorical phantom limb.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

As to the plot of this book, it could not be more simple. A woman comes for an appointment with our therapist and confesses her desire to commit suicide as soon as she returns home. Unsure whether he’s talked her out of it, he ushers her to the door at the end of their session. When he opens it, a large man man applies a sap to his head. Some hours later, he surfaces to discover his office overrun by police officers. His celebrity client who’s married to a financially very powerful older man, has called in all the troops. The woman has been kidnapped. This starts us off on a no-holds-barred first third of the book. When we have a chance to draw breath, it looks as though our hero may be out of the firing-line. But, as is required in books like this, the kidnappers have different ideas. It seems they are intent on asking him a few questions.

Once it becomes apparent this has somehow become personal, Rinaldi has to both survive and begin to put together a working hypothesis as to what exactly is going on in this very expensive household that can find five-million dollars in bearer bonds just by picking up a telephone. Has the missing wife really been kidnapped? Why has the nurse looking after the older husband disappeared? What happened to so sour the relationship between the father and his son? The answer to these proves highly entertaining as the plot resolves itself into a fascinating explanation of who’s doing what to whom and why. In the midst of it all comes the one-legged veteran who may have a larger role in all this. Frankly, you can’t ask for more entertainment than this in thriller book form. Phantom Limb is great fun and highly recommended for everyone who enjoys white-knuckle rides with real brainwork involved in the solution of the underlying mystery.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Night Terrors.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo

Night terrors

Night Terrors by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2013) is the third in the series featuring Daniel Rinaldi and, as with Fever Dream, our forensic psychologist with the hero complex has yet again survived to the end of a book. Back in 2003, there was an appropriately titled film called the Bulletproof Monk. Once you realised the hero had supernatural powers, all the silliness of his invincibility faded into the background. When something is explicitly a fantasy, you willingly suspend disbelief. But this book pushes the envelope of credibility as our hero is variously assaulted, rear-ended into a ditch, and shot at on several different occasions. To say he’s leading a charmed life is an understatement. Yet, if you’re prepared to look beyond this blurring of reality, what we have here is an above-average mystery puzzle for our sleuth to solve. After all, to write a series, the author is always obliged to keep the hero alive (or else pivot into a supernatural book in which his ghost continues investigate crimes in the mortal coil — observing what people say and do is not a problem, but telling the police whodunnit is a challenge unless they take instant messages by ouija board).

So where to start? Well there’s no better place than the first introductory scenes which represent one of the best starts to a mystery that I’ve read in quite some time. Boiling it down to its essentials, the narrative structure of this series is for there to be two “crimes” for our hero to investigate. In the last book, we had him consulting over a bank robbery while worrying about why someone committed suicide. This time he gets called out by a country sheriff who has a confessed killer in custody. The “accused” says he’ll take them to where the body is hidden but only if the increasingly high-profile Rinaldi is there to keep him safe from harm (both internally generated and externally applied by the local police). Very reluctantly, he gets into his car and navigates the icy conditions into the night. What they find when they finally reach the house in the woods is wonderfully atmospheric with a delightful twist borrowed from the horror genre. The only problem with such a strong opening is that, by contrast, the pace of the next section of the book feels so slow. Fortunately, the FBI then invite our hero to consult on one of their cases.

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Dennis Palumbo deciding how not to kill off his hero

Before his retirement from the Bureau, an old FBI profiler had tracked down a serial killer who died while in prison. As a direct result of this death, he may now be on a hit list. Under normal circumstances, he would support the investigation through his expertise but not only has he retired, his mind is also worn down through his inability to sleep properly. He suffers from night terror. Because the FBI agent in charge considers both Rinaldi and his new patient outside the magic circle, neither are given access to the case files relevant to the threat. Needless to say, this excessive following of the book and rigid thinking is not going to solve the case. The real catalyst for action therefore comes when the sleep-deprived old guy decides to exit the hotel where the FBI has him in protective custody. This was not at all what the FBI operatives were expecting and it leads to Rinaldi going out into the field with one of the local detectives to interview a witness who may be able to identify the killer.

In the midst of this, the mother of the man who has confessed to the first somewhat gruesome murder contacts Rinaldi. She’s convinced her son is innocent and a situation is engineered forcing our hero to talk with the “killer”. But as our sleuth says to this highly respectable woman who swears her son was with her around the time of death, “If he’s innocent how did he know where to find the body and why would he confess if he was innocent?” Two very good questions, I’m sure you’ll agree. As is always the case when reaching the end of this type of book, our hero is able to say with compete certainty whether the man who confessed to the killing is innocent and who has been going around killing a prison guard, a judge, a prosecutor, and so on. The fact the key scenes of revelation take place on a factory roof at night gives the second meaning to the title.

Summing up, this is a top-class mystery with thrillerish overtones as our psychologist with an unadmitted death wish triumphs yet again. This is far better than Fever Dream so Dennis Palumbo is an author developing in technique and threatening to become one of the top mystery writers.

For reviews of other books in this series, see:
Fever Dream
Phantom Limb.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo

April 9, 2012 2 comments

Fever Dream by Dennis Palumbo (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011) is one of these genuinely non-stop action thrillers in which a bulletproof hero, this time a psychologist called Daniel Rinaldi who specialises in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), solves a major crime or two. I seem to have missed out on an exciting lifestyle by not learning to shoot or box when I was young. The heroes of these thrillers have all mastered jaw-smashing or kneecapping with a baseball bat by the time they get into the secondary school system. Then it just requires a few years shooting squirrels in the backwoods and, bingo, they’re ready to be a psychologist with a Rambo veneer. This is Rinaldi’s second appearance, the first being Mirror Image. He has also had a traumatic experience. This gives him a convenient insight into PTSD and allows him an almost instant rapport with those who have been through similarly violent events. Yet, instead of emerging with hypervigilance and a desire to hide under the nearest table if anyone coughs unexpectedly, this guy runs towards death with his arms open shouting, “You’d better shoot me before I tear your head off,” or something equally calming to establish a rapport with the man pointing a gun at him.

Dennis Palumbo planning to become an action hero

Anyway, this paragon of empathy with suicidal tendencies, is called to the scene of a bank raid gone wrong. It seems two men stormed in, shot out the cameras and took the staff hostage. One robber then left — he had another appointment to keep. However, as part of the negotiation, the remaining robber has released a woman. Not surprisingly, the SWAT team needs to know what they might be facing if they storm in. Our expert gets a few details, but there are shots fired inside the bank and, unable to wait, SWAT snipers and kevlar-coated troops cry havoc and act like the dogs of war. Moments later, the only survivor is the bank guard who has also been shot in the arm by the snipers. And there does seem to be only one robber, now deceased. Obviously, this is a high-profile operation and there’s a real risk of a public relations nightmare. Unfortunately, Leland Sinclair, the current DA, is running for governor and wants to put the best possible spin on this SWAT action. Voters may lack confidence to push him over the electoral line if they think his law enforcers shoot robbers and their hostages indiscriminately. This puts our hero in the frame since one of the two surviving witnesses is in shock. At this point, word comes in that the ambulance taking the guard and the witness to hospital has been involved in an accident. There are more dead at the scene.

As you will understand, this sets us off on an inherently interesting chase. We have a manhunt for at least one robber and then there’s the fall-out from the accident involving the ambulance. Now to keep things on the boil, there’s an attempt to assassinate Leland Sinclair and what looks to be a routine suicide in the clinic called Ten Oaks where our hero worked as an intern. And could that be a bomb in the building to be used for a televised debate by the candidates? On the way, our hero gets shot at several times, hit over the head, drugged into unconsciousness, and variously assaulted. He’s tied up and escapes. In short, he’s a regular Hasbro figure waiting for action to find him. I take all this and more because the way it’s written carries you along in excitement. When you look back, it’s all rather silly, but there’s a real page-turning quality at work here.

There’s one moment of unfairness towards the end when we know relevant information has been received but, to allow us to get into a tense ending, it’s withheld. I suppose this is a legitimate ploy — it’s fairly obvious what it must be although which of the remaining people must therefore be responsible is less predictable. When you put all this together, Fever Dream is a genuinely enjoyable read. There’s some nice deductive reasoning on display and, although the level of violence is more appropriate to a comic or Hollywood movie, this is a nicely worked mystery novel.

For reviews of the next two books in the series, see:
Night Terrors
Phantom Limb.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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