Friday, August 15, 2014

Amateur Sleuth with Synesthesia: MURDER WITH A TWIST, Allyson K. Abbott

The second book in Allyson Abbott's "Mack's Bar" series is out! And there's still a chunk of summer left for reading it. That's double-good news, because MURDER WITH A TWIST is a well-written, neatly plotted, and thoroughly enjoyable addition to the hammock-or-chaise-lounge reading list. Abbott is a pseudonym of Wisconsin emergency-room nurse Beth Amos, a confessed adrenaline junkie who brings the quick pace and logical consequences of her double careers into spinning a tale.

Gender clarification first: Mack's Bar is owned by Mackenzie Dalton, whose father brought her into the business in downtown Milwaukee. Since her dad's death, she's sole owner, and doing well enough to expand her floor space, making room for a crowd of local crimesolvers who gather to solve test cases, pose crimes for each other to consider, and incidentally help out the local police force. Mack herself is a "secret weapon" for Detective Duncan Albright, who -- as detailed in the previous title, Murder on the Rocks -- has come to believe in Mack's special abilities, and wants to try using them to sort out criminals and their crimes. Mack can be, he proposes, a sort of human lie detector.

And she'll do this with her special perceptions formed by synesthesia. It's a neurological condition that makes a person's senses get tangled up: Sounds become colors, people become music and smells, and more. Because Mack picks up different sounds when someone's lying, for instance, she could be helpful on the latest case -- if she can handle the gruesome death of a mom, and the residual sense of pain and fear of her kidnapped toddler. Mack lays out the problem when Duncan takes her on a test case before that one, a possible suicide ... or not:
I had thought our little crime games, along with all the preparations I'd been making with Duncan over the past six weeks, would make a real crime scene easier to take. But that wasn't the case ... the hanging man before me that morning was real, frightening, and all too dead. 
While Mack focuses on narrowing the cascade of sounds and smells coming at her, the corpse overwhelms other evidence:
The sight of that bloated, purple face kept triggering a veritable locust plague of reactions. I shook my head, sighed, and looked down at the floor.
Eventually she sorts out impressions and turns out highly valuable to the investigation -- which ought to make the next case simpler, right? Except between the gruesome bloody killing and the child at risk, nothing's simple. Neither is the chemistry between Mack and the detective. And there are perils ahead, neatly layered with action at Mack's Bar.

This is the second synesthesia-based sleuth I've run into this year, so I paused to check on whether synesthesia is more common than I realized. From the Boston-based Synesthia Project, I found this:
How common is synesthesia? The short answer is that no one really knows. The long answer is anywhere from one in every 100,000 people to one in every 5,000 people, but it's difficult to get a good count because of the nature of synesthesia.
Well, that's good enough for me -- I may never have (knowingly) met a synesthete, but I'm willing to have them among the sleuths and especially to buy into the confusing and sometimes debilitating version of it that Abbott, aka Nurse Amos, portrays.

It turns out that a bar full of amateur sleuths is a great device, too, and I'm looking forward to reading more in this series. Amos also writes under a second pseudonym, Annelise Ryan, a forensics pro; I'll be watching for those also. Just goes to show what Dave and I rediscover every month: You think you know a lot of mystery authors and titles, right? But there's always a new good one to discover. Or, in the case of Beth Amos, two of them!

No comments: