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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

State of Mind and The Analyst by John Katzenbach

Both of these page-turning thrillers have an element of the Kafkaesque to them. State of Mind takes place sometime in the near future at a rurally located university of some 25,000 students. Jeffrey Clayton teaches Abnormal Psychology, keeps a loaded pistol under his desk in the lecture hall, and like most other teachers has a metal detector at the entrance to his classroom. Classrooms have bulletproof windows, students set fire to classrooms to avoid having to take exams, and campus police, a branch of the state police, never travel alone and wear riot gear.. A recent experiment with guard dogs being let loose in vacant classrooms seemed to have helped the vandalism problem, but their howling can be distracting. About half the student population was thought to carry guns, but fortunately they were located in a mainly rural town where the Student Health Service might expect only a dozen rapes and stabbings on a weekend. Urban areas were much worse.

Clayton is approached by a well-armed man who identifies himself as an agent of state security from the new Western Territory, a semi-fascist area that wants to become the fifty-first state. This man, who calls himself Martin, knows a great deal of Clayton's work with the FBI as a man able to track down serial killers. He also knows a great deal about Clayton's past.

It turns out that Jeffrey's father, whom he thought had died in a car crash years before, is alive, living in the new state, and murdering young women. What could be better cover than "white, educated, artioulate, professional academic, married with a lovely family. They, of course, were the critical piece, you know. The ultimate in camouflage." Years before, Jeffrey, his sister, Susan, and mother, Diana, had fled and hidden from the father because of his predelictions. This removed his camouflage requiring his creation of a new identity and fmily. Now he has begun to stalk Susan, a puzzle expert, and Diana in Florida, also. What better place for him now to hide out than a new state where fear has been eliminated. Martin and the territory officials are desperate to locate and kill the unknown man who they fear will destroy the psychological rational for their new state and the basis for their supression of basic civil liberties in the name of safety and freedom from fear. Jeffrey realizes he has become the bait to trap his father. Soon begins a cat and mouse game between Peter Curtin, Jeffrey's father, as he is now known, and his old family.

What makes the book particularly interesting is the tension between the old, free, violence-ridden world, and the new, safe, unfree territory that may be actually more susceptible to violence than the old.

In The Analyst, Dr. Frederick Starks, a psychologist, just turned 53, receives a letter on his birthday informing him that he has ruined the life of the letter-writer's mother and that his own life is about to be destroyed. Soon his credit cards and bank accounts disappear, he is accused of the sexual harassment of a patient, and a client commits suicide. He is told that if he does not discover the identity of the letter-writer's mother within two weeks, he must commit suicide or a member of his family will be killed. The only clue he has to the letter-writer is that he calls himself Rumpelstiltskin and a beautiful girl who delivers messages. "R" always seems to be one step ahead of him and Starks is soon baffled and undure what to do next as his life crumbles around him.

Starks decides he has but one course of action: to die. Without giving too much away, Starks fakes his death and assemblies several new identities for himself as he seeks to discover who is behind the plot to destroy him and why. This book is a real page turner, as frustrating as The Castle, until Starks reassembles his life and seeks the answers to his torment.
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