“In Palumbo’s riveting third Daniel Rinaldi mystery (after 2011’s FEVER DREAM), answers prove elusive as the murders begin to pile up. Palumbo ratchets up the stakes in this psychological thriller, but maintains the emotional complexity…” --- Publisher’s Weekly

Night Terrors Analyzed By Mystery Scholar Barbara Leavy

Barbara Leavy webThat Dennis Palumbo’s Night Terrors is a page turner is hardly surprising, for so were his first two Daniel Rinaldi books, Mirror Image and Fever Dream.  What is particularly striking about NT is the number of narrative lines Palumbo can keep going at the same time without the reader having trouble following them.  There is the story of the retired FBI profiler, who has over the years had so much consistent contact with evil as he studies serial killers that the sum total of his experience is itself a trauma and he suffers from night terrors, which Palumbo differentiates from nightmares.  There is also the puzzling fact that a young, obviously disturbed, man confesses to a gruesome murder his mother is sure he didn’t commit, killing and dismembering the body of a man he claims to have chosen at random.

And, of course, there is what might be called the central story, of a killer who seems determined to kill everyone associated with the conviction of a serial killer whose death in prison leads to the killer’s own rampage. He is working off a list of such persons as the judge, the prosecuting attorney, the profiler, the defense attorney. And none of the investigators know who is on that list that they might not have thought of.  That neither the investigators nor the reader can arrive at the underlying motive for these calculated executions heightens the novel’s suspense, and the killer remains almost a spectral figure. And to make matters worse, there are many jurisdictional conflicts, not only the local police vs. FBI operatives, but among the different police investigators, who are working out of three separate states.  So much supposed cooperation among law enforcement agencies can compromise the investigation.

To have read the previous Rinaldi books is also to see changes in Rinaldi himself.  A psychotherapist who serves as a consultant to law enforcement, he is drawn into the plight of the retired profiler, who doesn’t want any therapy Rinaldi can offer. It is because of some notoriety the therapist has gained as an aid to criminal investigations that he is  called upon to accompany the police and the young man to locate the body of the dismembered victim.  Rinaldi is a specialist in treating trauma, but relatively little in Night Terrors takes place in his office.  Instead, the psychotherapist takes some pretty foolhardy risks, and he’s hurt more than once—to the dismay of those who care about him.

But to counter this veritable shift in his roles, Palumbo reveals more about Rinaldi himself than can be found in earlier books. As committed as he is to his patients, Rinaldi is reluctant to make permanent commitments to another person, in this case the woman with whom he has a brief affair in this book.  Rinaldi also has his own unresolved traumas, one that happened in the past, another during the investigation in N.T.  He also suffers from an almost free-floating guilt, and one wonders if this has anything to do with his self-description as a lapsed Catholic who yet remembers all the dates of important holidays. Rinaldi’s strong sense of his ethnic identity as an Italian-American gets more attention in NT than in the earlier books.  He is irked when another Italian-American presumes a bond between them that does not exist.  His exchanges with a distant cousin, Angela, who can help him gather information, are complicated by the fact that no matter how delicious the pasta sauce she makes from an old Tuscan recipe, he cannot bear to sit down with her objectionable racist husband.  The first of his immediate family to go to college, a success as a psychotherapist, Rinaldi can drive through the neighborhoods of a changing Pittsburgh and mark these changes because he does not observe them from the outside. 

Palumbo is apparently not yet ready to make Rinaldi’s awareness of himself as an Italian-American the core of a plot in which conflicts arising from his identity directs Rinaldi’s actions and feelings.  But who knows, Palumbo may be moving toward that direction.


Barbara Fass Leavy is a former Professor of English Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York. Currently, she is Adjunct Professor of English in Psychiatry at the Institute for the History of Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She has published numerous essays and given lectures on literature, folklore, crime fiction, gender relations, and Greek tragedy and psychology. Three of her four books are on folk and fairy tales and their literary versions; a fourth treats literature whose subject is epidemic diseases. When asked by her six young granddaughters what she wrote about, she used to reply, “mermaids,” and now that they are able to do research online, they have tested this answer by putting her name and the word “mermaid” into Google, surprised by the number of entries. Barbara Leavy has published a book on the fiction of Ruth Rendell, and is currently working on a collection of essays entitled “Crime Fiction and Culture.” http://www.barbaraleavy.com/

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