The last time we saw Alan Gregory, pluperfect hell had broken loose in his life. The rock-steady marriage that had already survived his wife Lauren’s MS had developed a wobble; he and long-time buddy Sam Purdy had crossed some of those lines Alan thought he would never violate; and he had become instant father of an adolescent boy when the mother of godson Jonas was killed. Suffice it to say that the almost pathologically mellow psychologist was feeling just a bit stressed out, even before his ex-wife Merideth called to ask for help.
Lisa, the surrogate mother bearing Merideth’s and her fiancé Eric’s child-to-be, has disappeared; and Merideth wants Purdy – currently on unpaid suspension from the Boulder PD – to search for her. The mysterious disappearance has its roots in a chapter in Eric’s (and Lisa’s) earlier life, an event he refuses to discuss with Merideth other than to say that it happened years ago on a trip to the Grand Canyon. Alan’s assignment in Merideth’s plan is to seek out another hiker who was on that fateful trip, the daughter of an old friend from Boulder now living in LA. At loose ends and feeling somehow rudderless – he’s taken a sabbatical, Lauren’s in Holland with daughter Grace, Jonas is with relatives – Alan acquiesces to that irresistible force to which he had once been married.
Alan knows the barest details of the “Grand Canyon incident”: a woman disappeared the night Eric and his party stayed at Phantom Ranch, never to be seen again. The mere mention of the “incident” seems to upset all six of the people who were there, and every one of them seems to be hiding something from someone else. It’s into this uneasy ambience that Alan is dropped, half a dozen people a generation his junior, each one scared witless that Alan – or someone – is about to discover his or her darkest secret. Not that they’re the only ones with deep, dark secrets, as Alan will ultimately learn.
The sixteenth novel to come from the pen of Boulder, CO, psychologist Stephen White, Dead Time finds protagonist Alan Gregory standing at not one but several crossroads. The events of the previous installment in the series, Dry Ice, left cracks in his marriage from the revelation that Lauren long ago gave up a child for adoption; as well as his sudden attraction to a Boulder attorney. He was likewise stricken to the core of his being by the draconian measures he and Purdy took to extricate themselves from their situation. It’s clear, however, that neither marriage nor self-image is completely recovered.
Dead Time features Gregory in an unfamiliar setting, sans the usual props of comfy couch and notepad, yet it is every bit as much about the analysis of his patient as any other volume in the series - except this time, it’s a case of “psychologist, heal thyself.” As much a character study as a mystery – in fact, probably more a character study - Dead Time brings to fans of the Gregory series everything they’ve come to expect, with a few surprises as icing on the literary cake. Those fans will be gratified to view Gregory as he ruminates at length on what the meaning of “is” is, uses those patented therapist’s silences and leading questions, and in general observes the futility of excess without comment (at least not out loud).
Hard-core whodunit fans may be somewhat disappointed, as is generally the case, with White’s plotting. Coincidences abound – what are the chances that Gregory’s ex-wife is about to marry an erstwhile Californian who was on a hiking trip in Arizona with the Boulderite daughter of one of Gregory’s friends several years ago - a couple hundred million to one, perhaps? He also violates a prime tenet of mystery writing by bringing in a villain not merely from left field, but from out on Waveland Avenue beyond the left field fence. On the other hand, White builds his suspense skillfully and creates a cadre of characters who are well-crafted and, if not universally likable, at least approachable. What’s perhaps most interesting is that, this time out, the mystery takes a backseat to character development, and it’s Gregory whose character undergoes an evolution. This is clearly not a book that stands alone; but at the same time it must surely set the tone for Gregory’s future. Fans of Stephen White must not miss this one.