Picks and Pans Review: The Case of Thomas N.

updated 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/24/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by John David Morley

In this darkly dazzling, suspenseful jewel of a novel, a boy with a suitcase is found by the police. He has no identification. He says his name is Thomas, but he knows nothing about his past. His photograph in the paper doesn't bring a clue. In a psychiatric hospital, Thomas is unable to fill in his background. He is sent to a children's home until a welfare officer finds him a job in a hotel scullery and a room in a boardinghouse. This is Kafka land, a surreal city without a name, though it seems middle European. A police detective is named Havel; Thomas is befriended by a man named Onko. When Thomas finds himself at the scene of a horrible crime, he is beset by guilt and assumes the behavior of a criminal. But the actual murderer, Havel believes, is "driven by very powerful, very specific motives—so powerful, indeed, that he goes to the most fantastic lengths to disguise them from himself." Morley, the author of Pictures From the Water Trade, presents his odd characters and locale with a hallucinatory detachment. A dreaminess permeates the entire book, and Morley holds to the eccentric atmosphere he has created without a false step. Is the book a comment on modern society? Onko tells Havel, "The criminals can be punished...but you cannot extirpate the roots of this unfeeling, a mass insensibility, a terrible numbness of the human spirit." (Atlantic Monthly Press, $16.95)

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