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Book Reviews   |    
The Education of Mrs. Bemis ? A Cold Heart
Reviewed by Merle Brandzel, M.S.W.
Psychiatric Services 2003; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.12.1652
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by John Sedgwick; New York, Perennial, 2002, 390 pages, $13.95 • by Jonathan Kellerman; New York, Ballantine Books, 2003, 400 pages, $26.95

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Two mystery novels are reviewed here. In the first, The Education of Mrs. Bemis, by John Sedgwick, Mrs. Bemis, an elderly Boston Brahmin, is found curled in a fetal position on a bed in a local department store.After medical clearance, she is admitted to a Concord, Massachusetts, private psychiatric facility—McLean Hospital in disguise—where a young psychiatric resident, Alice Matthews, begins treating her for depression. With reluctant approval from her supervisor, Dr. Matthews treats Mrs. Bemis, not only with psychotropic medication but also with a talking therapy with which she hopes to penetrate the fortress of her patient's cold imperiousness. The two form a close bond as each finds in the other a missing part of herself.

In the process of treatment, Mrs. Bemis' shameful secrets from her youth, as well as the present catalyst for her depression, come to light.Her revelations are disclosed slowly; in contrast, the powerful connection between the two women grows relatively quickly. Dr. Matthews' search to understand Mrs. Bemis' past is aided by a police detective. His investigation of a murder case at first appears tangential to the patientbutsubsequently assists Dr. Matthews in her treatment of Mrs. Bemis.

John Sedgwick, the book's author, does an excellent job of developing the character of Mrs. Bemis, whose upper-class upbringing and issues might otherwise be difficult to understand.Stoic, gracious, refined, and formidable, we applaud the kind of peace she ultimately finds through the intersection of psychiatry and gumshoe detection. It is less apparent how this relationship helps the confused and troubled Dr. Matthews, although her own identity clearly develops as the story progresses. Some change can be attributed to the "romantic interest" of the unusually thoughtful and introspective police detective. If not riveting, this is an engaging weekend read that allows one to indulge in a mystery while still keeping some professional focus.

In A Cold Heart, Dr. Alex Delaware is the author's alter ego, as he is in many other books in this series by Jonathan Kellerman. Psychologist, consultant to the police, and various other things not clearly identified, Delaware is nonetheless available whenever homicide detective Milo Sturgis calls for his assistance on cases with odd twists. Delaware's assignment is to provide psychological insights on the information the police gather.

In this instance, Baby Blue Lee is stabbed and killed while taking a cigarette break in the alley behind the club where he was performing. Finally free of various addictions that had stalled his career, he had never played better that night. His magic fingers had accustomed him to playing with the greats in the past, and this gig, together with a recent CD, indicated a comeback. Lee is described as naïve, good-natured, and without enemies, and his murder appears at first to be a crime with no motive. Then a talented artist, Juliet Kipper, is murdered with a thin ligature the night of the gallery opening. A painter of luminous landscapes, she saw her opening as the beginning of her West Coast career after years of drug and financial problems in New York City. She is found posed in a sexually suggestive position, although no assault had occurred. Delaware comments that talc from the latex gloves indicates preparation and that the sexual positioning is a form of showing off. He thinks that the murder is too contrived to have been based on a rape.

Mulling over the two cases, Delaware sees many differences, but there is one similarity that stands out. Both artists are gifted damaged souls suddenly snuffed out during the first blush of a comeback. The psychologist goes online looking for matches with other creative individuals who have been murdered. He finds several possible matches, but the theory seems like a stretch to both Delaware and Sturgis.

Then a classical pianist is found stabbed and strangled the night of his big recital, and Delaware's theory seems less obscure, although other leads are followed. When a singer is added to the list another common feature is added. In all cases the artists had pieces written about them after a failed interview attempt by a writer for GrooveRat, a fly-by-night desktop publication. When asked what that might mean, the psychologist says that the writer could be overinvolved in the victims' careers, his identity enmeshed in the creative identity of others. The killer could be hijacking the "adored one's" identity, hung up on the external trappings of creativity. Later, when the detectives observe an extreme change in the writer's style, one of them wonders whether this means that the writer is going "schizo." Delaware responds that the crimes are too organized for a person with schizophrenia but that a mood disorder might fit.

As a police procedural novel, A Cold Heart offers readers a glimpse into how small, seemingly random inquiries connect to create a case that has momentum and direction. However, although the premise of a rescue fantasy and of pathological jealousy are intriguing, they are somewhat far-fetched in this novel. With the exception of a mischaracterization of schizophrenia, Kellerman's information, as provided through psychologist Delaware, is generally accurate. Ultimately, however, despite being described as "brilliant," Delaware's analysis never seems to move the story forward—or to help catch the killer. At one point a detective wryly comments, "Now we've got a diagnosis, but no patient."

Ms. Brandzel is with the Massachusetts Department of Mental Retardation in Worcester.

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