Review #14 – Psychopath (Frank Clevenger Series) by Keith Ablow

I am going to borrow from Barnes & Noble’s description of this novel:

“Having achieved celebrity status with his last case, Clevenger is tapped by the FBI to catch an elusive murderer known as the Highway Killer, who has left twelve bodies strewn across twelve states. But the Highway Killer isn’t just a serial killer–he’s a psychiatrist whose brilliance as a doctor is matched only by his precision as a murderer.

When he writes to a national newspaper challenging Clevenger to cure him through an exchange of open letters, a gripping public therapy unfolds. With the Highway Killer’s brutality reaching new heights as he confronts his mind’s darkest demons, will Clevenger exorcise those demons before they spin completely out of control?”

Like all the Clevenger books, this story is told in the third person, interweaving the killer’s narrative with Clevenger’s. The killer himself is an interesting character, but as a doctoral student in psychology (with a particular interest in forensic work) I had a hard-time buying him as a “real” character. He was portrayed as possibly having schizophrenia which, based on what I know of the disorder, would certainly prevent him from becoming a psychiatrist and also being so organized in his thought process working with clients. He takes anti-psychotic medication, but even so he holds himself together too well. In addition, Clevenger’s “newspaper psychoanalysis” worked entirely too quickly to unravel the killer (which I suppose, could in fact point to a though disorder) and was also based too much in classic psychodynamic theory to appeal to me. Psychoanalysis takes YEARS and YEARS of daily therapy, yet Clevenger is portrayed as so brilliant that he was able to understand this killer he has never met based on just a few letters. Sometimes, knowing about the field of psychology and how the brain works can ruin the enjoyment of a story based in psychiatry and the human mind. I suspect I would have enjoyed this novel a lot more if I did not have the “insider” knowledge I do.

In addition to the above, there is also the (more interesting to me, in some ways) secondary plot of Clevenger’s relationship with his adopted son Billy. Here we get to see Clevenger’s truly human side as he wrestles between his desire to be a strong father figure for Billy and his desire to be Billy’s father (two distinct things, if you ask me).

The novel is set mostly in Boston which I love since I live there. The city has such a richness and is the perfect backdrop for mystery novels… but we are taken away a bit as we follow the Highway Killer and Frank Clevenger around the country. This led at times to a bit of a disconnect I think, and some confusion about where the characters were at any given time.

As with all of Ablow’s novels, I had to put aside my personal views of the author (see the link here) who apparently has some quite rigid and conservative thoughts that are not entirely in line with some current thoughts in psychology. Then I have to remind myself he is trained in psychiatry, not in psychology, and these are often two sides of the same coin. Either way, I did enjoy this book and am working on the next in the series right now.