BY REASON OF INSANITY
G. Miki Hayden
Free Range Press / 188 pages / (December 1998)
When it came time to submit my best-of-1998 list, Hayden’s Pacific Empire was an obvious choice for one of the top three slots. Lucky for me I hadn’t read By Reason Of Insanity yet, or it wouldn’t have been such a clear decision. Landscape Of Demons and Between the Darkness and the Fire are holding strong in their places, but if I had to pick one of Hayden’s novels…
Sometimes the vagaries of the U.S.P.S. work in our favour. Before you even begin reading By Reason Of Insanity, do something for me: disregard the “mystery” classification. What you hold in your hands is one of the finest examples of dark realism of this decade. The best since — well, since Landscape Of Demons.
Few authors can accurately portray the elusive recognition of mental and emotional problems; the descent into madness for some, the frightening spiral of anxieties and obsessions for others. There is a vast range of symptoms from fleeting depression to psychotic episodes. Certainly, the woman dressed in tinfoil who claims to be a Martian as she asks for anything you can spare needs professional help, but what about your co-worker who seems full of energy one day and withdrawn and morose the next?
But, Hayden? You may never read a more precise and compassionate account of the escalation of psychological illnesses. Or one that manages to remain so objective at the same time.
Dr. Dennis Astin sees more than his share of people looking for deliverance; he is a psychiatrist, after all. That doesn’t give him immunity to the same conditions that patients bring to his office. At times, Astin seems more disturbed than anyone he’s writing prescriptions for. But, is he insane? And, if so, is he crazy enough to kill?
Someone in Center City is, and they aren’t content with one corpse. Several of the good citizens of this mundane town are in danger of joining the pile. Surely, whoever is committing the murder must be dangerously insane. The problem is sorting out the merely chemically unbalanced from the hopelessly mad. Hard to do when you are unsure of your own mental health.
Hayden depicts the progression of symptoms in Astin’s mind with a subtlety and command that transfers the doctor’s fears to the reader. It is a horrified fascination that compels you to read on and on, even when you wish you could turn away from the train wreck of this man’s emotions. It is a wholly involving experience, if an exhausting one. If you think it’s difficult not to rubber-neck at accidents, wait until you start this prize.
Once in a great while, you happen upon an author so talented, so unique, that it is torture waiting for the next book. As far as Hayden is concerned, let us all hope that she writes fast.