Book Review: A Tightly Raveled Mind (2014)
by Alan F. Zundel
“A Tightly Raveled Mind” by Diane Lawson is a tightly plotted mystery about the mystery of our own behaviors. It is a fun light read and an impressive debut novel by Lawson, a psychoanalyst living in San Antonio, Texas.
The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Dr. Nora Goodman, is, like the author, a psychoanalyst living in San Antonio. Unlike the author—one hopes—Dr. Goodman’s patients have begun to die, one by one, in unexpected circumstances. Shaken and convinced that this is more than coincidence, she enlists the help of a private detective, Mike Ruiz, to figure out what is happening and to prevent any more deaths.
Lawson exploits the similarities between psychoanalysis and detective work, both of which aim to understand and expose the darker side of human nature. The difference is that the analyst aims to help the person under scrutiny, while the detective aims to bring that person to justice. Optimism and pessimism regarding human nature collide.
This theme come alive in the tension between Dr. Goodman and Ruiz, just as the novel itself comes alive when Ruiz appears. Lawson grabs you with the first mysterious death on page 3, propelling the story along by engaging your curiosity, but the sparks really begin to fly when Dr. Goodman meets Ruiz.
The two central characters are fully formed and memorable, unlike many of the other characters, who remain character types: the gold digging beauty, the sexually deviant patient, the self-centered husband, the disbelieving police detective. The stock characters are not too much of a liability, though, as they fit into the noir tone of the novel.
When Dr. Goodman first began to show sexual interest in Ruiz I thought it was a misstep on the author’s part, as it did not jibe with her character the way it had been described up to that point. I assumed the author was trying to spice things up and should have had more confidence in her characters’ ability to engage the reader’s interest.
But I was wrong. Dr. Goodman is a Freudian psychoanalyst, and Freud is all about sex and the unconscious. The irony is that Dr. Goodman lacks insight into her own unconscious motives and sexual urges, and the sexual theme begins to surface gradually in the novel the way it would in psychoanalysis. Once it does, it begins to clarify what before was opaque.
Note that there are two mildly explicit sex scenes in the novel, in case you want to avoid such material—or in case you like to read it. There are also a couple scenes of graphic violence. If fiction is the inducement of a shared fantasy, that’s where our fantasies often go: to sex and violence. According to Freud, our repressed unconscious surfaces in this way.
Lawson’s writing style speeds along smoothly, her narrator’s voice simultaneously wry, naïve and intelligent. The story builds tension as it moves along, and the ending, while leaving at least one unanswered question in my mind (no spoilers here, but you can ask privately if you like), is unexpected and satisfying.
For those who like mysteries, including the mystery of the human psyche, “A Tightly Raveled Mind” offers a guilty pleasure for a few nights’ entertainment.
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