1. Ray Of Light

    By @mrpauldunphy on 2004-04-06

    (proso°pag°no°sia) (proso-pag-no¢se-[schwa]) [prosop- + agnosia]

    a form of visual agnosia characterized by an inability to recognize familiar faces, or even one’s own face in a mirror, which occurs as a result of bilateral damage to the medioinferior occipital lobes along the medioventral surfaces of the temporal lobes.
    Called also face or facial agnosia.

    In surely what must be a pivotal moment in his career, author Raymond Benson breaks free of the constraints of writing about one of modern popular culture’s most enduring icons and turns his attention to an edgy, fast-paced thriller in which almost every character has a dark side and in the violent conclusion, the protagonist has to confront her weakness to discover her strength.

    Benson has certainly proved his literary diversity in the six years he has been writing the Bond continuation novels, and with this effort, he unashamedly confirms he can write an efficient noir thriller akin to his previous non-007 novel; EVIL HOURS, too.

    One thing you certainly can’t accuse Benson of is delving into a subject without first doing extensive research, in HIGH TIME TO KILL, for instance, Benson researched high altitude mountain climbing, and ZERO MINUS TEN, saw him writing a detailed Casino Royale-style Mah Jong game that spanned several pages. In FACE BLIND he studied the rare condition, and the result is a tightly crafted plot and a technically accurate depiction of prosopagnosia. The subject of the condition is Hannah McCleary, a woman in her twenties who lost the ability to recognise faces- no matter how previously familiar- after she was assaulted and nearly raped by an unknown aggressor near her New York City apartment. The assailant is, according to the police, locked up, but Hannah believes firmly that he’s still out there somewhere, waiting to finish the job he started. Serving ten years for the assault, Timothy Lane protests his innocence, but Hannah was urged to identify him shortly after the attack, and a feeling in the pit of her stomach tells her pressure from the authorities coupled with her facial agnosia forced her to make the wrong decision.

    The first few chapters of the novel focus on Hannah’s prosopagnosia; introducing the reader to the almost unheard of condition whilst efficiently setting up the characters and plotlines that later, through a combination of coincidence and sheer bad luck find their way back to her.

    Hannah’s weak-spirited, occasional damsel-in-distress may be a realistic depiction of what one suffers when face blind, but easily the most interesting character in the novel is Bill Cutler, an almost sadistic, arrogant, extroverted unsuccessful actor who enjoys using his brother’s medical transcription company to fuel his thirst for sexual conquest and cruelty to those who are in their most vulnerable states. In one instance, he contacts a recently bereaved widow whose husband didn’t take out full life insurance, poses as a telephonist for the company, and pretends that the insurance company made a terrible mistake, granting her a payout. He savours the sound of the widow weeping for joy, and promptly plays a cruel, if hilarious trick on her.
    It’s at this point that I realised that the book would actually make a pretty good film, and the novel begins to pick up pace.

    Cutler comes across Hannah as he transcribes her case for the company, and decides to play on her weakness by posing as several characters who play an integral part in her downfall. The only criticism I would have of Cutler’s predatory character is the rather awkward way Benson wove in another facet to his persona which I feel is revealed a little too early on in the narrative, but the author’s mastery of plot twists and turns makes this a detail quickly forgiven.

    One such twist occurs in the relationship between John Cozzone, Hannah’s distant cousin and employer and his fiery flavour-of-the-month girlfriend, Sophia. A bungled drugs exchange leaves Cozzone and overly-confident mafioso girl Sophia on a crime spree that eventually leads mistakenly to Hannah. An interesting, if maybe overly-analysed point I could make about the mafia out to seek revenge for Sophia’s murders is that they are themselves face blind, as they desperately search for an attractive blonde woman (Sophia wore a wig) attached to Cozzone. They happen to put two and two together and come up with Hannah.

    The book is a fine example of what a good crime thriller should be about; mistaken identity, a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, and more plot twists and turns to shake a Walther at.

    The language used throughout the book does no more than serve the purpose of moving the plot along at a fast pace, which appears to me to be a double-edged sword; on one hand the level of descriptive detail as seen in his earlier work THE MAN WITH THE RED TATTOO for example, would cloud the narrative unneccessarily, but one reads the book with the impression that some more careful deliberation could have gone into the phrasing of certain events (trying not to give too much away plot-wise!) to aid the visualisation for the reader.

    However, this is a minute point, and certainly not a criticism I intend to dwell on, and after reading the book I was left impressed by Benson’s superb gauging of the elements in a noir thriller. He keeps the reader hooked by his interesting characterisation and well-timed plot convolutions, and there are one or two points in there that made the Bond aficionado in me smile a knowing smile.

    Using this as a milestone, I can’t wait to see what Benson comes up with next. If you’re a fan of suspenseful crime thrillers, this is a solid and efficient thriller and well worth a read.

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    • First published in the UK by Twenty First Century Publishers Ltd.
    • Published Nov 1, 2003.
    • Click here to buy from Amazon UK.