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Martin Smith's Psychological Thrillers Plumb A Depth Uncommon In Mass-Market Pulp Fiction.

By Christopher Weir

JULY 13, 1998: 

Shadow Image, Martin J. Smith (Jove Books). Paper, $5.99.

WITH SHADOW Image, Martin J. Smith has once again crafted a razor-edged thriller loaded with deception, dementia and dispossession, all of which are refracted through the author's proprietary brand of issue-driven twists and turns.

In his first novel, Time Release, Smith tackled recovered memories and their disturbing legal ramifications. This time, he orchestrates a provocative counterpoint between Alzheimer's disease and runaway political ambition. More than mere gears to drive the plot, Smith's themes operate at a depth rare in the realm of mass-market thrillers.

Back again is psychologist Jim Christensen, whose live-in partner and defense attorney Brenna Kennedy finds herself hired into a particularly sticky attempted-murder case: Floss Underhill, matriarch of a Pennsylvania political dynasty, has fallen off a cliff at the family estate during the heat of a state gubernatorial race in which her son, Ford, is the Democratic candidate. Complicating matters is the fact that Floss is an advanced Alzheimer's patient. She doesn't remember anything about her tumble, but the estate's gardener has told police that he heard a struggle at the time of the alleged accident.

The Underhills hire Kennedy to forge a legal strategy that will thwart growing suspicions about the family's role in the incident. Did Floss merely stumble while out for a walk? Or was she shoved off the cliff? Kennedy is bound by professional obligation to galvanize the accident scenario, yet she can't shake the notion that something more sinister transpired. The subtext of Ford's high-profile candidacy implies an urgency that only heightens her predicament.

Enter Christensen, who knows Floss Underhill through an Alzheimer's program at a local hospital. The program encourages patients to participate in artistic endeavors, the results of which are analyzed for patterns that might facilitate a better understanding of the disease and its impact on memory functions. Christensen begins sleuthing his way through Floss' paintings, slowly unlocking secrets that draw him deeper into the criminal investigation. Meanwhile, Kennedy is making parallel discoveries about skeletons in the Underhills' closet. Soon the pair find themselves caught in a vortex of political savagery and murderous intrigue.

Especially memorable here is Smith's portrait of the Underhills, whose legacy shines like an apple that's nonetheless rotting at the core. The maverick mother has been thrust into mental chaos. The stately father, a former governor, has been reduced to regurgitating the Underhill mystique over too many glasses of brandy. And the son is ensnared in all the shallow trappings of postmodern politics, from poll chasing to image obsessing. This disintegrating dynasty yields a powerful--and vaguely familiar--backdrop to the creepy momentum that eventually drives the story toward its full-throttle conclusion.

Some readers might be uncomfortable with Christensen's unorthodox mold as the story's hero. At home, he gets pushed around by both Kennedy and his 8-year-old daughter, a fate that seems to obviate any tough-guy pretensions. So how is he supposed to kick ass when things get rough? Somehow Smith makes it work, striking a blow for the everyman who rarely finds himself cast in such exalted fictional roles.

Smith also reveals a flair for defining vivid characters within the span of a mere sentence: "She looked a lot like Janet Reno after Waco--large and ungainly, desperately preoccupied, a woman who, unlike the Clinton administration's attorney general, was seemingly anchored to the planet by the ridiculously overstyled Air Jordan basketball shoes she insisted on wearing with the laces undone."

Ultimately, Shadow Image cultivates a compassionate study in Alzheimer's while delivering a broad slap to the Camelot-style delusions that still maintain serious leverage at the American ballot box. If the book doctor orders a dose of smart thrills this summer, consider Shadow Image a potent prescription.

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