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Onyx reviews: Phantom Instinct by Meg Gardiner

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 06/15/2014

Phantom Instinct begins with a chaotic scene in Xenon, a Los Angeles nightclub. Harper Flynn is tending bar when masked assailants breach the club's tight security and open fire. A meth dealer named Arliss Bale is the supposed target. Harper's boyfriend, Drew, tries to drag her to safety, but one of the attackers launches a Molotov cocktail, sending the occupants into a stampede. Harper manages to escape, along with two cops who were surveilling Bale.

Detective Aiden Garrison is not unscathed, though. He suffers a contrecoup head injury that gives him a rare disorder called Fregoli Syndrome. The region of his brain that recognizes faces is permanently impaired. Worse, he ends up with a kind of paranoia that causes him to believe that random strangers are enemies in disguise, the Fregoli delusion. Not just any enemy, either—Aiden sees the third attacker from Xenon, the one who lived and escaped. The one who no one else believes exists, except for Harper, who is adamant that she, too, saw three gunmen. The police steadfastly refuse to believe in the phantom third attacker, in part because it complicates the investigation. To their minds, the case is solved and closed.

A year later, Harper's boyfriend's family holds a ceremony commemorating the anniversary. The incident raises new interest in the Xenon affair. Most importantly, Aiden and Harper team up to try to convince people that they are telling the truth. Harper even manages identify their suspect: Eddie "Zero" Azerov, a man she knew from her troubled youth. There's every possibility that Harper was one of the intended victims that night, though no one except Aiden believes her, and he's not exactly the best ally, given his unpredictable outbursts.

Phantom Instinct isn't quite a paranoia thriller, but one of the book's main themes is mistrust. Aiden's former police partner and lover, Erika Sorenstam, no longer trusts him because of the effects of his head injury. Harper can't rely completely on Aiden after she witnesses one of his violent bouts, and Aiden is wary of Harper after he learns about her misbegotten past, although the story there isn't as straightforward as it at first seems. After she straightened her act out, she joined the Navy as a Russian translator and is taking classes on the G.I. Bill. Now, someone is stalking Harper, a man accompanied by a savage dog, though the police won't take her seriously.

The first half of the novel is intriguing and suspenseful, with a small but interesting group of secondary characters, including Drew's younger sister, who looks up to Harper, and Oscar, a hypervigilant and paranoid hacker from Harper's past. There's even a romance, though it doesn't seem organic to the story.

Harper and Aiden's investigation ruffles too many feathers, including those of people who want the case to stay closed and others determined to seek retribution for something Harper did to them years ago. To force Harper to back off, the villains kidnap Piper, Drew's sister, but even then they manage to orchestrate things so that the police won't believe anything has happened. Readers will at times question whether Harper and Aiden are involved in a folie deux, with their individual paranoias and delusions bolstering the other's.

Thus begins a cat-and-mouse pursuit, with Harper and Aiden always one step behind. They end up at an abandoned factory for a climax that goes on for far too long. The last hundred pages seem to take place in real time, with absolutely every moment accounted for. There are surges and retreats, losses and gains, and one revelation that strains the limits of credibility. However, it all seems hopelessly overcomplicated. People with the resources available to the antagonists wouldn't need to go to such risky and chaotic lengths to settle an old score.

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