PHANTOM LIMB (2014) by Dennis Palumbo
Reviewed by Barry Ergang
Dealing with Skip Hines, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who lost a leg but can still feel it, prompts clinical psychologist/first-person narrator Daniel Rinaldi to muse about his deceased wife: “Yet, like with my father, a felt sense of her lingers. Perhaps this is true for everyone. That those with whom we’re most intimately connected persist, not only in memory, but almost like missing parts of ourselves. Like phantom limbs, we feel their presence, even though they’re gone forever….”
The concept applies in degrees blatant and subtle to some—not all—of the other characters in a variegated cast which includes and aged and infirm billionaire industrialist; his bitter alcoholic son; a tough and tough-minded head of a private security agency who lives on the industrialist’s estate; the industrialist’s attorney; a canny but narcissistic crime boss and his murderous chief henchman; a paranoid schizophrenic bar employee and his girlfriend; Pittsburgh Police Department (to which Rinaldi is a consultant) personnel; and FBI agents, one of whom is friendly toward Rinaldi, the other haughty and officious.
Thus we come to my problem when trying to review a Daniel Rinaldi mystery/thriller, the construction of which is a course in itself about how to grab a reader on page one—see my review of Mirror Image—and keep him or her turning the pages to its stirring climax. The problem is one of degree: how much of the storyline to provide without giving away too much lest I spoil potential readers’ excitement and enjoyment of an exceptionally tense novel.
When Lisa Campbell arrives at Rinaldi’s office, he recognizes her immediately: “I knew her story, of course. At least, the public version. Most people here in Pittsburgh and environs did, too. Especially in her hometown of Waterson, about a hundred miles east of the city. Her career journey, from small-town beauty contestant to Playboy Playmate to sexy film actress, had been a long, well-publicized one. Accompanied by the shrill carping of Waterson’s outraged local press, ex-communication from her church, and the painful yet predictable estrangement from her pious, deeply conservative family.” After a “career” of mostly being nude, tortured and slain in a number of Hollywood cinematic schlockers, and also having “a reputation as a reliably freaky party animal, clubbing every night with the rich and trendy,” married and divorced twice, she eventually returned home to Waterson, where her family rejected her. Subsequently, she went to Pittsburgh and “landed a job as a clerical assistant in the CEO’s suite at Harland Industries, a Fortune 500 favorite. After six months, she landed the CEO himself.”
So for about the last ten years she’s been married for the third time, now wife to septuagenarian Charles Harland, about whom Rinaldi observes: “People were possessions to him. Prized for their utility. For what they could do for him, or for what they represented.” When Lisa meets Rinaldi, she makes it clear that she knows a fair amount about his past before telling him: “Here’s the deal: I plan to kill myself at seven o’clock tonight. Which means you have fifty minutes to talk me out of it.”
When they reach the end of a revelatory session, Rinaldi accompanies her through the waiting room to the door to the outer corridor. When he opens it, he beholds a man who is “Big, taller than me. Filling the doorway. In a black jacket and jeans. Eyes hidden by dark glasses.
“He had something in his hand. Raising it…”
When he awakens from the assault, Rinaldi learns that Lisa has been kidnapped, is later summoned to Charles Harland’s estate where he meets some of the aforementioned persons and learns Harland’s private nurse has disappeared, and is chosen by the cunning culprit, who has managed to electronically surveil the estate, to deliver five million dollars in bearer bonds to the site of his choice.
What happens beyond this I won’t reveal beyond saying that things don’t go as hoped, corpses pile up, and that Rinaldi gets further involved to his personal peril and that of others. Readers who find raw street language and “on-screen” violence offensive will want to avoid Phantom Limb. Those who don’t, and who enjoy meticulously-paced, action-packed, character-driven, surprise-laden, high-tension thrillers (whew! My word processor just ran out of hyphens) will find it well worth their time.
© 2018 Barry Ergang