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'Therapy' by Sebastian Fitzek

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In Sebastian Fitzek's wildly implausible but mesmerizing mystery thriller, "Therapy," the fragmented chapters wheel and turn in unpredictable directions, the reader always plunging after a narrator who disappears around the corner.

Four years after his then-12-year-old daughter's disappearance, Viktor Larenz, once a famous psychiatrist and media personality in Berlin, finds himself strapped to a bed in a psychiatric clinic, trying to tell his young and relatively unseasoned doctor, Martin Roth, how he has come to this pass in his life.

At the time of her disappearance, his daughter, Josy, had been suffering for almost a year with ailments -- seizures, nose-bleeds -- that no one was able to diagnose. When no trace of her turns up, Viktor rapidly spirals into depression and alcoholism. He sells his practice, and his wife, Isabell, divorces him. In a chapter ominously titled "Five Days Before the Truth, Parkum," Viktor has retreated to his family vacation house on a wind-swept island in the North Sea. Winter is coming, so the only other island inhabitants are the mayor and the ferryman.

So who is the stranger, an impeccably dressed young woman, who shows up at his door and won't be turned away? Her name is Anna Glass, a children's book author whose characters have started coming alive and harassing her. She wants the world-renowned Dr. Larenz to treat her schizophrenia -- or at least to listen to her story. He refuses until she mentions her most recent revenant, a little girl named Charlotte who suffers from a mysterious illness and runs away to find a cure. Viktor wants to believe it's a coincidence that her story mirrors Josy's; except that the subtitle of the never-completed book is "The Blue Cat." How could Anna know that Josy's favorite toy had been a blue plush cat? Viktor is sure he's never met Anna before, although at the same time she seems familiar.

Mystery deepens

Now things turn seriously strange, and at times I got irritated with Viktor's constant forebodings: "Eventually he would discover the truth -- but by then it would be too late." After all, those chapter headings are foreboding enough. Viktor refuses to have anything more to do with Anna and tells her to leave the island. Unfortunately, a violent storm shuts down ferry service. The weather will stay menacing, a not so subtle metaphor for Viktor's increasingly unstable mental state.

Anna keeps showing up, her pink Chanel suit and high heels somehow untouched by rain or mud, except for the times when she appears bedraggled, her clothes rumpled and buttoned wrong. Viktor is awakened by noises in the night and searches the house, which is still locked tight. Back upstairs, he finds Anna asleep in the guest bedroom.

The mayor comes to warn Viktor that she is dangerous; he saw her buy a carving knife. Viktor himself believes that she has come with the express purpose of telling him something important about Josy's disappearance.

Stranger still

His dog disappears without a trace and that too seems to have something to do with Anna. She told him that as a child she had killed her own dog. One day, coming into the living room after a phone call, he sees Anna putting something into his tea.

"Viktor was wearing himself out in a futile attempt to repress the clues surfacing from his unconscious. The truth was already visible. It lay before him, helpless and desperate like a drowning man in a frozen lake. But Viktor Larenz refused to punch through the thin layer of ice." Whatever that truth is, the reader becomes ever more clueless. When Viktor talks to the mayor and the ferryman about Anna, they give him strange looks and deny ever seeing a woman on the island. Not only haven't they seen a dog, they never knew he had one. Isabell calls from New York, accusing him of keeping a mistress. Someone erases his hard drive. Is everyone conspiring against him? His private investigator calls to tell him someone has broken into his house on the mainland. Blood was found in the bathroom. And so it goes.

"Searching for truth is like putting together a jigsaw without knowing how many pieces are in the box." That's putting it mildly. In Viktor's case it's more like trying to solve the puzzle while high on acid.

Sally-Ann Spencer has translated this German bestseller into assured and fluid English. In his acknowledgments, Fitzek says he likes the translation better than the original, and I find the claim plausible; English is a propulsive language, whereas German must always fight the tendency to eddy.

The ending is a doozy. It explains everything, from Josy's fate to Anna's identity to Viktor's unraveling. The person who puts the jigsaw together turns out to be Dr. Roth, though he does so somewhat too neatly, more like a deus ex machina than a detective.

But that's a minor complaint about this clever, original whodunit.

Frase is a critic and reviewer.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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