Doctor Tampers with Brain Chemistry

Article excerpt

THE KINDLING EFFECT

A medical thriller by Peter Hernon

373 pages, William Morrow & Co., $24 `THE KINDLING EFFECT" takes its life from a growing interest among forensic pathologists in the use of neurotransmitters to control violence and crime. This interest makes good sense. Cities have become more dangerous; prisons are overcrowded; the age of first offenders has been dropping. Wouldn't everybody profit if the personalities of psychopaths were altered? Peter Hernon's Dr. Robert Hartigan thinks so. And what he thinks matters. Hartigan is a world-class specialist in brain dysfunction who runs a clinic renowned for its work in treating psychopathic behavior. Early into the action, the research psychologist John Brook achieves his greatest professional wish by being invited to join the St. Louis-based Hartigan Clinic. But his euphoria sours quickly. Brook learns that he has been hired to replace a staffer who was killed by a clinic patient. Nor does his discovery that an insider helped the killer escape from his cell sweeten Brook's mood. "The Kindling Effect" shows that the noblest motives can lead to the vilest crimes. Hernon's handling of this irony enriches his plot. For instance, so intent is a clinic doctor in stopping Hartigan from tampering with his patients' brain chemistry that he plans to kill him. But do these homicidal plans make Hartigan's would-be killer a public benefactor or a villain who must be stopped? Writing in clear, energized prose, Hernon grabs the reader's attention quickly and then holds it. The murder that occurs in the book's opening chapter creates an excitement that he helps sustain through the device of intercutting. By moving from one set of characters to another, he speeds the plot, builds social and moral depth and introduces a winning blend of irony and suspense, since the characters who develop a given scene can't know what their predecessors did in the last one to help or hurt their chances. …