Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Origin.
Dreamy, ethereal, captivating, engaging, Diana Abu-Jaber’s Origin is a quirky murder mystery pitting fingerprint examiner Lena Dawson against the person who is murdering babies in Syracuse, New York, and trying to make them appear indistinguishable from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). Lena also has her own mysterious past to deal with, which she discovers is inexorably linked to the deaths she’s investigating. An orphan raised by foster parents, Lena’s earliest memories are of being rescued from a plane crash by an ape whom she thinks of as her “ape mother.” She also has had, for as long as she can remember, a necklace with the tooth of an ape on it, and her foster parents either don’t know or refuse to tell her where the necklace came from.
Lena is also gifted with a superior sense of smell. Her ability to distinguish between various odors landed her a job in the forensics lab in the first place because her boss, Frank Viso, was so impressed with her unusual talent:
Frank hired me eleven years ago, semilegally - I didn’t even have an associate’s degree -
because I could analyze and describe all the major components I smelled being used in the Lab. The interview over, we were standing in the hallway while Frank tried to think of a
polite way to turn me away. I said, Pine Sol, Super Glue. Burnt matches. I didn’t mean
to, the words floated out of me. They were heating and fuming in the Lab, the smells so strong and oddly appealing that I had to name them: ammonia, old pennies, salt...Frank said, you got all that just from smelling? I sniffed the air and said, there’s more, but they’re in different layers, some are just barely there. Cut wood. Old silver....He laughed and said,
When Erin Cogan begs Lana to investigate further into her baby’s death, labeled a case of SIDS, Lena is hesitant to offer the distraught mother much hope. The medical examiner ruled the cause of death as SIDS, the police aren’t interested in investigating it any further, and there seems to be no evidence of foul play. Lena’s co-workers are protective of her and think Mrs. Cogan is crazy, but Lena is struck by Mrs. Cogan “...like an old memory - as if she were someone I used to know a long time ago, and for me that sort of ancient recognition is rare and disturbing as waking to the sight of a ghost.” She tells Erin: “Jesus. Just let me think about it.”
Taken alone, the death of Erin Cogan’s baby might not signal much; there’s been an average of one SIDS death every few months in Syracuse. However, Lena prides herself on recognizing patterns, and there a spike in SIDS deaths arouses her suspicions and makes her want to discover if there is anyone behind it or if it’s just an anomaly.
Origin is full of characters with damaged, though engaging, psyches. There’s Lena’s foster parents, whom she calls by their first names, Pia and Henry. Pia could only get a baby through shady channels because of her history of psychological problems and a suicide attempt. Henry, the more “normal” of the two, doesn’t like keeping secrets about Lena’s past from her but doesn’t want to upset his wife more by rocking the boat. Also, he’s had a stroke that makes getting information from him relatively difficult.
There are many other examples - all of the major characters, including Lena, are damaged in some way but try to cope as best as they can with their pasts. One of the most memorable of these is Mr. Medouah, a neighbor of Lena’s who could have been made into just some crazy old guy talking to himself on a street corner in the hands of a less capable author. Diana Abu-Jaber excels in rich characterizations, though, and gives Mr. Memdouah a background and depth that lifts him above a stereotypical “crazy” and into an integral part of the book’s plot and Lena’s life.
Dreams, patterns, reawakened pasts - Origin incorporates these themes in a suspenseful, page-turning plot that’ll make you want to read until late into the night. Its heroine is, to use the word I used earlier, “quirky” - possibly more so than any other solver of mysteries since Monk.
I confess I was drawn into the book, at first, despite inital misgivings that Origin might be some sort of cross between
Sheena of the Jungle and some Agatha Christie-type novel. I was pleasntly surprised and enjoyed Origin quite a bit. It should be on the bookshelves of any lover of the mystery genre, and I look forward with anticipation to reading more from Diana Abu-Jaber.