In the early chapters of Robert Palmer’s debut novel, The Survivors, psychologist protagonist Cal Henderson resembles no one so much as Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe. He’s cool-headed, patiently analytical and self-deprecatingly aware of the limits of what he can do for others. In a way, inside the head of a Frank Bascombe-type is the last place you expect to find yourself in a page-turner, since Bascombe’s adventures, from The Sportswriter to Let Me Be Frank With You, unfold at a pace that’s lugubrious at best. However wonderfully engaging, Ford’s series rarely attempts the sort of urgency that propels thrillers like The Survivors from a captivating start to a dramatic and revelatory finish.
In that sense, a psychologist whose practice thrives on long-term analysis sustained in 50-minute sessions seems no better a candidate to launch a series of nail-biting mystery novels than a sportswriter or a real estate agent (although he might have some useful theories on the nail-biting). Then again, every competent fictional gumshoe is an amateur psychologist. A demonstrated ability to read people, divine their motives and anticipate their next move is what keeps a working detective in business. Ross MacDonald, in his 14 Lew Archer novels, practically made a career of marrying Sophocles and Freud to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
As a crime novel told from a psychologist’s perspective, it seems only fitting that The Survivors should deal with the repercussions of a past that’s not only horrifically troubled but largely suppressed in the protagonist’s memory. As a young boy, Cal Henderson (then known as Davie Oakes) not only witnessed his mother’s suicide, but discovered shortly thereafter that she had murdered his father and two older brothers just before turning the gun on herself. Also shot in the head that night was Cal’s best friend, Scottie, who was playing hide-and-seek in the closet with Cal’s brothers. Only Cal and Scottie survived.
The book begins 25 years later with Cal in a successful psychology practice in Washington, DC. After taking his adoptive parents’ name, Cal has mostly moved on from this family tragedy, intermittently succumbing to blackouts when something triggers a suppressed memory of the incident. The memories confront him forcefully when Scottie—whom Cal has not seen once in the intervening years—turns up at Cal’s office. He’s followed shortly thereafter by two FBI agents who are pursuing Scottie for harassing a prominent political figure with questions about the circumstances surrounding the murders.
Scottie—manic, volatile and startlingly effective at digging up obscure and long-buried dirt online—has unleashed a hornet’s nest of quarter-century-old intrigue involving defense contracts, patents, lawsuits and payoffs on which great fortunes have been built. Scottie’s search for answers quickly draws Cal into danger and disturbing recovered memories that kick The Survivors into high gear.
Palmer seems almost as reluctant to accelerate the pace of the narrative as Cal himself at times, but for the most part, The Survivors works with the help of a few surprises and some convincing bursts of violence. The fact that Cal appears to possess the requisite tools to succeed as a psychologist—without any particular mastery or virtuosity in dissecting criminal thought or behavior—works to the novel’s advantage. This is no parlor-game crime novel; things get messy. It seems safe to assume that Cal, however successful in his chosen profession, will never solve a case in the safe and quiet confines of his office, or before the lights dim on a patient’s allotted 50 minutes.
If this debut turns out to be the first of many Cal Henderson novels as its jacket promises, we can expect to encounter more psychological intricacy and inside-the-beltway intrigue of the sort that Palmer has delivered in The Survivors. And we can only hope that Cal’s cool-headed analysis will save the day next time.