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A.J. Diehl: The Mind Box

 

Crescent Blues Book Views Midnight Ink (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0-7387-0820-8

Book: diehl, the mind box
Hollywood detective Lane (Helena) Daily heads the investigation into the horrific murder of movie and music producer Eddie Ealing, whose grotesquely mutilated corpse mimicked the effects of his screen gorefest Sense of Life. Could this be the first killing by a serial murderer with a bizarre sense of humor and a chip on his shoulder about cleaning up the entertainment industry? Most of Hollywood leaps to that assumption -- and so do many of Daily's colleagues. But Daily can't be sure -- especially since powerful movers and shakers appear to be quietly hobbling her investigation.

Not long before the murder, Ealing receives by e-mail a sadistic display showing a human heart and a young woman's blood-smeared face. "Mike's Gifts" -- a shadowy organization (or individual) with a long history of, for a fee, exacting physically harmless but psychologically sadistic revenge upon the bullying and corrupt -- sent the email. Could this "gift" be linked to the murder? Does she need to solve the mystery of Mike's Gifts before she can solve the mystery of Ealing's death?

Or should she look more closely at the too-squeaky-clean memory-research establishment, the Temperel Institute, run by the Ealing family and centered on the dead man's eccentric-genius brother? And where does the Ealing paterfamilias, a hyper-rich professional moralist, fit in?

All of the above, while an accurate summation of the scenario, makes A.J. Diehl's first novel, The Mind Box, sound like just another template mystery.

It's not.

To amplify that statement would probably be to give away too many of the surprises to be found during the course of reading this long, richly textured and very rewarding book. Suffice it to say that it proves to be one of those wonderful novels where you end up a very long way from where you expected to find yourself.

The Mind Box is not a perfect novel. The first sixty or eighty of its 470-plus pages possess a certain aura of uncertainty. It reminded me of a small-press author with all the talent in the world but desperately need a good editor. In particular, the author seems keen to cram in as much as possible of her research on police procedure, forensics and the like. But thereafter, almost between one page and the next, the narrative picks itself up and starts zipping along compellingly.

Daily, who in the initial pages seems set to be a by-the-numbers modern-mystery-novel female cop sleuth, becomes instead a fully rounded and very simpatico personality, as does her friend and shrink, television psychiatrist Paulette Sohl. Minor characters become fully fleshed out, including Daily's cop ex-husband and especially one of the other characters, whose identity I better not reveal here but whose importance becomes increasingly evident as the tale progresses.

A.J. Diehl definitely qualifies as a writer to watch. The Mind Box is a complex and highly satisfying novel and one of the genre's more impressive debuts.

John Grant

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