Merrimon Book Reviews

1953 Poster

1894 caricature from the Danish "Puk" magazine showing teen-agers immediately adopting inappropriately adult manners after their "confirmation"

Illustration of schizophrenia's effect on the brain while patient performed  memory task:
the less the prefrontal cortex (red) activated, the more dopamine increased in the striatum (green).

From Merrimon Book Reviews
Risk Factor
Risk Factor by Charles Atkins
by Charles Atkins       

A haunting portrait of adolescent extremes

At the inpatient adolescent unit of Boston's Commonwealth Hospital, a young schizophrenic man sits next to the corpse of Nurse Helen Weir.  Blood-soaked and incoherent, Garrett is unable to give any clues in his own defense that make sense to the doctors or those investigating the case. When a second nurse is murdered, Dr. Molly Katz has serious doubts about Garrett's guilt. As Molly seeks to protect Garrett and unlock the key to his worsening condition, she must turn to her knowledge of psychology to look beneath the more obvious clues. Her work with other cases, particularly Jennifer Ryan, a young girl at extreme odds with her mother, leads her into an examination of the balance between the nature versus nurture debate. Why is there a difference between normal adolescent psychology and the increasing extreme levels of adolescent behavior? Why do some adolescents, like her children, manifest similar periods of emotion and rebellion without surpassing a level of violence and psychological illness that she sees in her patients? As Molly delves deeper into these questions while trying to protect Garrett, a killer shadows her and her family. Can she solve the riddle of Garrett's mind before it is too late?

RISK FACTOR is a refreshingly unusual thriller. As Molly looks into her cases, comparing the extreme manifestations of her patients to similar though less extreme adolescent moments she sees as a mother, she addresses the questions without the kind of black and white dividing lines between warring psychological camps that one often sees in the media whenever an extreme case surfaces. Her patients are not monsters but neither does she excuse their behavior. Molly has the ability to view the family as a whole rather than merely exonerating or blaming the child or the parent. Molly's quest to reach Garrett takes her into all the pertinent issues of nature versus nurture as well as the changes in society that seem to exacerbate the extreme levels of behavior. No stone is left unturned. No easy answer is given. Instead, Molly's ability to examine the amalgamation of the separate psychological factors leads her to uncover clues the police are unable to see.

RISK FACTOR is not the typical terrifying cookie cutter psychological thriller that sensationalizes the most twisted horrifying crime into an almost horror-like scenario with a resolution that reads almost like a simplistic exaggerated caricature. RISK FACTOR is indeed a psychological thriller with its haunting portrait of adolescence. Several twists and turns lead to an unexpected resolution to the murder case, but the drawing power of this thriller is the haunting web of intricate psychological threads. Through fiction, RISK FACTOR addresses some of the vital questions we all ask in attempts to prevent incidents like Columbine or any of the other escalating scenarios we see in today's media compared to that of earlier generations. Psychiatrist Charles Atkins has a gift of being able to examine these issues through fiction in a way that does not oversimplify nor resort to the language of a psychological treatise or diagnostic manual. RISK FACTOR has a certain element of creepiness, but presented in a more subtle way that I appreciated as a reader. I found myself drawn more and more into this book precisely for the combination of the fictional lightness of a thriller (as compared to non-fiction) with just the right amount of depth to keep me intrigued. Intellectually I found RISK FACTOR even creepier at the end when I thought over what I had just read. I have not read this author before this book but I will definitely be reading more by him in the future. In RISK FACTOR, Charles Atkins puts the psychological back into the psychological thriller.

Publisher:  Leisure Books (January, 2009)
Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Merrimon Book Reviews

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