Of Half a Mind, by Bruce Perrin

Of Half a Mind, by Bruce Perrin, is the first book in “The Mind Sleuth” series, starring research psychologist Sam “Doc” Price.  This is an intellectual mystery, filled with plot twists and puzzles and interesting characters.  It’s a well-written page-turner that will keep you guessing, and keep you wanting to keep guessing, to the very end.  It’s also a learning experience for those of us not well-versed in the science of brain function, which the author weaves into the story very effectively.  It’s not a perfect book, but it’s enjoyable and well worth the time and price.

In this story, a young Doc, in his first job after getting his PhD, is assigned to review a proposal for research to be funded by the Veteran’s Administration that started out as a way to deal with phantom limb pain, but morphed into a technique for improving cognitive brain function, and in particular memory.  The research is interesting because it involves using an electro-magnetic device to suppress brain function in one hemisphere of the brain, forcing the other parts of the brain to compensate and thereby strengthening total brain function when both halves are reunited and not “blocked.”  But, it turns out that there are side-effects to this blocking technology, which leads Doc and his team – the wise-cracking colleague Sue and the attractive consultant from another company, Nicole – on what turns out to be a chase to uncover a mystery and solve a murder.

                Throughout the story, the author gives us a narrative from the perspective of “the Experimenter,” who is the villain of the story.  The Experimenter is using human guinea pigs to test the limits of the brain blocker technology, and he doesn’t mind if they suffer or die in the process.  The Experimenter has no morals, and we learn that this is due to his own use of the brain blocker, which has heightened his abilities in the left hemisphere functions, while suppressing right-brain functions, including sympathy and guilt.  The big mystery for the reader is figuring out who the Experimenter is, while following Doc’s process of following the trail of scientific bread crumbs.  The author gives the reader some clues, but also a few false leads along the way, but the technique keeps you guessing until shortly before the big reveal.  If you’re paying attention, you will figure it out, but not so soon that it will spoil the plot.

                There is a lot of explanation about the science involved here, and the author weaves that into the conversations between the characters and in exposition about the action in a way that makes it palatable and not a boring textbook.  At times there may be a bit too much technical material, but I found it fascinating and it’s easily glossed over if you’re not interested.  The plot really gets going when Doc and his team meet with the scientist who is developing the brain blocker and who has applied for the VA grant.  The developer behaves in an erratic manner – and then ends up dead.  The police are not really investigating it as a murder – and this is not a police-oriented murder mystery by any stretch – because there is no conventional evidence of foul play.  But Doc, Sue, and Nicole think that murder is in play, as does the doctor’s widow, who watched him deteriorate under the effects of the brain-blocker device.

                The plot moves along at a steady pace as the heroes focus in on the villain, known only as “A.T.” from his initials in the early experiments with the blocker.  Meanwhile, Doc tries to spark a romance with Nicole in his clumsy scientist way, which is endearing.  There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, and while there are a few too-convenient coincidences that play into the reveal of the Experimenter’s identity and a few leaps of logic and unexpected facts that suddenly come to light, the final sequence is still surprising and compelling.  One particular fact mentioned several times earlier in the story becomes critical at the end, which was nicely woven together and unexpected – but then also “of course” it was there all along.

                For baseball fans, the author includes many references to his (apparently) beloved St. Louis Cardinals, and the story is set in and around St. Louis.  There are not so many local references that the book becomes a travelogue, but if you are familiar with the area you’ll appreciate the detail.  If you’re a baseball fan, there’s also a small Easter egg in one of the minor character names that I found fun.

                The book is extremely well edited, and while I personally thought the author overused ellipses as punctuation, the flow of the story was never interrupted by bad copy editing.  The author’s language and writing style save us from what could be a quagmire of scientific detail and make the story into a thrilling adventure.  The characters are well-formed, each with a very individual personality and speaking style, which makes for an easy read.  (At one point Sue’s character is referred to by her last name, which I had forgotten since she was generally referred to as “Sue,” which threw me for a few pages, but that’s my own failure of memory and I figured it out pretty quickly.)  There’s a small throw-away legal issue in the wrap up at the end that could have been handled better and a few plot gaps that could have been bridged more elegantly, but overall this was a fun read with an intriguing plot and a very original premise.  I will certainly be on the lookout for the next installment of the Mind Sleuth series to find out what happens in Doc’s next adventure.

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