[National Post]        February 17, 2012

The Placebo Effect by David Rotenberg
Touchstone | 352 pp | $19.99
Reviewed by Stephen Patrick Clare

LINK: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/02/17/book-review-the-placebo-effect-by-david-rotenberg/

Considering all of the popular and critical acclaim David Rotenberg’s five-book Zhong Fong detective series has received, it is somewhat surprising when the Canadian author and director moves in another direction. Fong has legions of fans around the world, and the series, fittingly, is now being optioned for film.

Still, the success of his epic novel Shanghai, which was published in 2008, demonstrated that Rotenberg could break away from convention without loosening his hold on the imagination of his readers. Rotenberg blends the best of these books in his latest effort, The Placebo Effect, the first instalment in a proposed three-book series called The Junction Chronicles, which refers to the Toronto neighbourhood where the author grew up and later returned to in the late 1980s.

In The Placebo Effect, Decker Roberts heads a quirky cast of characters in an entertaining and engaging read that is distinctly Canadian. Blessed (or cursed) with synesthesia — in this case an innate ability to detect when others are telling the truth or lying — Roberts finds himself at the centre of attention from those who would profit from his condition, including the U.S. government, a multinational pharmaceutical company, mobsters and the media.

Roberts, a middle-aged acting coach with a dead wife and an estranged son, is an interesting case study; by day he seems sociable, liked and respected by his peers and pupils. After hours, however, he seeks solace with select company, often through synesthesia social-media sites. As well, his clandestine paranormal work for private firms affords him a myriad of alter egos.

After his house is burned down and his finances crippled, Roberts flees his home turf in an attempt to track his attacker. His escape route takes him from coast-to-coast, north to south, through small towns and big cities. In fact, Decker’s journey is filled with so many twists and turns the novel could easily be called The Vertigo Effect. Thankfully, despite the back-and-forth, Rotenberg seldom leaves any loose ends.

Amidst the adventure, there is ample opportunity for Roberts’ true persona to emerge. Unfortunately, despite being privy to his peculiar private life, the protagonist never feels fully fleshed out.

That said, the book’s weakest link might also be its greatest strength; the author’s glaring omission of Roberts’ inner life leaves a gaping hole that readers can fill in on their own. As such, it is in the power of what is left unsaid — the silent spaces in between — that the novel finds its most voice.

To that end, Rotenberg returns to his dramatic roots; dialogue is crisp, clear and concise, but never obvious or over-the-top — quite refreshing, given the genre. And The Placebo Effect is testament to Rotenberg’s growing understanding that setting, mood and tone are all key components to a strong storyline. By establishing those essential elements early on, he sets a sure stage upon which both the core characters and supporting cast come to life.

The short, snappy chapters make for a fast, fluid read. At the same time, a swift and sharp narrative arc ensures readers won’t put the book down for long. While long-time fans might be cool to Decker and company at first, it won’t take long for them to warm up. Likewise, those new to Rotenberg’s writing, and even to the genre itself, will have no trouble winding their way though the quick-paced quest.

Certainly, Rotenberg has done a superb job at teeing-up the two tomes to come. The second book of The Junction Chronicles, A Murder of Crows, is already in the hands of his publisher.

• Stephen Patrick Clare is an author, journalist and broadcaster in Halifax.