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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
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
à deux, with their individual paranoias and delusions bolstering the
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
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