Monday, April 29, 2013

Daniel Palmer's Cathartic Torture Epic

Daniel Palmer, Stolen

Web app writer John Bodine and his wife, Ruby, have a promising future. His game is an unmitigated success, and she’s a straight-A student. But Ruby is diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, and John’s cut-rate insurance doesn’t cover her treatment. So John, in an act of complete desperation, steals a prosperous player’s insurance details. Only after Ruby shows improvement does John discover: he’s identity-thefted a psychopath.

In his third novel, Daniel Palmer creates a psychological thriller that feels completely plausible, yet pushes the limits of human tolerance. He puts his characters through changes that threaten to break their souls, yet stays grounded in real-world needs and fears, so we believe this could be happening somewhere, right now. This back-and-forth creates tension that compels readers to persevere through some of the most cringe-inducing scenes I’ve read in years.

Early on, John strives to be Machiavellian, yet remains essentially trusting, unprepared for the fallout when Elliot Uretsky phones, demanding payback for his stolen identity. Uretsky demands that John, a game programmer, participate in a new game, which Uretsky calls Criminal. If John doesn’t commit the crimes Uretsky demands, bodies will fall. So John does what we would do, and calls Uretsky’s bluff. Only Uretsky isn’t bluffing.

Palmer keeps his protagonists pinched in a torturer’s grip, forced to commit increasingly heinous crimes, knowing the penalty for refusal is far worse. Yet John and Ruby aren’t helpless victims. The crimes Uretsky forces them to commit show them undiscovered reservoirs of strength. John and Ruby progress from passively resisting Uretsky’s demands, to openly defying him, to actively fighting back. The transformation is remarkable, but also plausible.

The story unfolds gradually, with a careful eye for detail. Palmer crafts his characters, and their relationships, in such a way that they feel fully rounded. We want to celebrate their triumphs, which seem few and far between. More important, as a psycho tortures Palmer’s protagonists, inventing increasingly elaborate crimes for them to endure, we suffer the tortures with them, and share their palpable relief when they reach the far end.

But don’t mistake this gradual progression for slowness. Palmer offsets his careful pace with brisk prose, broken into short chapters which culminate in jarring, cinematic revelations. John and Ruby’s story appears slow because John, our first-person narrator, feels compelled to share his psychological schism and rebirth. But he never bogs down or loses sight of us, the audience, waiting with bated breath for the next unpleasant discovery.

Uretsky, the villain, has a downright demonic nature, blending Hannibal Lecter and the Joker. He has created a game which he demands John and Ruby play, with its own inscrutable rules he makes them follow. Yet he’s scrupulous about those rules himself, even when it costs him the advantage. That doesn’t mean he makes himself vulnerable: he dances up to the knife’s edge of the rules, daring his victims to follow along.

Daniel Palmer had a successful career in digital marketing, before coming to writing in mid-life. But that doesn’t mean he started cold. His father, Michael Palmer, MD, has published sixteen bestselling medical thrillers. Like his father, Daniel Palmer has rooted his thriller in his field of professional training, mining the labyrinthine corridors of cyberspace for their stunning untapped potential.

But Palmer doesn’t stop with the obvious. His entire story forces audiences to ask themselves what crimes they would commit to prevent an even worse crime. Would you rob a business to stop a serial killer? Start a fire? Sell your body? And once you’ve crossed those boundaries, how do you stop when the person holding your soul hostage demands something even worse? Do we even have such a thing as a bottom limit?

Palmer’s frank willingness to torture his characters opens a well within his readers, as we wonder whether we could withstand such treatment. We know human character reveals itself not in what we say we’d do in some hypothetical situation, but in what we actually do when our own irons are in the fire. As John and Ruby plunge further into Uretsky’s maelstrom of criminal demands, they also find profound strength.

Readers reach the end, with John and Ruby, wrung out, stretched past our limits, yet purged and renewed. Because Palmer does so well compelling us into his story, we, like John, feel reborn, right up to the moment we may just lose everything. And while we may escape the torture, we know we will never resume the status quo ante. Nothing will ever be the same again.

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