Revenge is a reflection of pain, to paraphrase a professional wrestler (who is probably quoting something I’m unfamiliar with), and that is the essence — in both directions — of John Katzenbach’s 2002 novel, The Analyst. An aloof, loner psychoanalyst in New York, Dr. Frederick Starks, who prefers to go by Ricky in his personal life, lives a rather rote, predictable life: He sees upscale patients during the day at his office, which is where he also lives, keeps a rather basic schedule otherwise, and during August, takes a month-long vacation to his vacation home in Cape Cod. At 53, he has no children because his wife died of cancer before they could conceive. He’s not close to any other family members. He’s not even particularly close to others within his profession.
Along comes someone calling themselves Rumpelstiltskin. He’s out for revenge against Ricky because of something Ricky did, or didn’t do, in his past. But instead of killing Ricky outright, Rumpelstiltskin wants to play a game: Ricky must guess the identity of his new tormentor within two weeks, upon which he will be free, but if he fails, then Rumpelstiltskin will destroy his family (even if he’s distant from them) one-by-one unless, or until, Ricky kills himself.
So starts off a psychological thriller cat-and-mouse game between Ricky, the psychopath going by Rumpelstiltskin, who wants Ricky to atone for his mistakes, and who we come to learn are his associates aiding in his sinister game, Virgil and Merlin. Virgil is a striking woman in her 30s and Merlin is a lawyer. In short order, they upend Ricky’s life: They plant a pornographic magazine in one of his niece’s school lockers to show their reach and potential to enact pain on one of his relatives; they empty his bank accounts; they break into his home to unsettle him; they make it seem as if one of his patients, Zimmerman, killed himself because of the doctor’s ineptness (and even send the transit officer Ricky sought help from into a coma via a “car accident”), and perhaps worst of all, they set up an elaborate false allegation of sexual assault against him, discrediting him in his chosen profession.
In other words, as the cat-and-mouse game unfurls, Ricky is decidedly off-kilter, on defense and in a reactionary mode. He’s not up-to-par. These people have planned for years to enact a scalpel-level destruction of him. Even when he seeks out his analyst mentor, Dr. Lewis, they not only anticipated such a move, but things ae not as they seem, and in fact, Dr. Lewis appears to be in league with the psychos. He’s evasive, as evasive as the poems and riddles Rumpelstiltskin likes to use in front-page advertisements in The New York Times.
However, Ricky begins using his brain and his psychoanalytical skills to turn the tables. In an elaborate scheme, he fakes his dead by making it seem like a suicide at his Cape Cod vacation home. That buys him about nine months — which seems intentional as a form of “gestation” — to create two new identities, Ricky Lively (heh, lively), a benign janitor at a local university and during the nighttime, he mans the suicide hotline for said university (small aside: the only area I felt that the analyst didn’t feel true in Katzenbach’s novel was a dialogue Ricky has with a woman in crisis on the hotline, but perhaps I could chalk that up to the book being 20 years old); and Richard Lazarus (get it?), the more violent reincarnation of Ricky, who reads books about true crime and serial killers, works out to strengthen his body and buys guns he then learns how to shoot.
All the while, he’s also trying to uncover the mystery of Rumpelstiltskin, Virgil and Merlin. He learns that he was the analyst at the beginning of his career for their mother. At the time, though, Ricky didn’t want a career helping the “poor,” so he didn’t pay much attention to her or heed to the red flags resulting in her suicide. He feels guilty about it, but also (rightly!) doesn’t think he owes his life to such a mistake early on in his career. But this is the “mistake” Rumpelstiltskin wants him to atone for. The three children ended up in the foster system and in a twist, were adopted by … Dr. Lewis, who is also a psychopath and wanted to experiment with the children to see how nature versus nurture played out. Well, Rumpelstiltskin is still a sociopath and we learn, a hired assassin. Far from trying to change that with a better environment, Dr. Lewis helped to fan the flames of his violent desire.
Along the way of unraveling the mystery, Ricky finds his courage and his conviction to be bold with a kennel owner with a scary Rottweiler (so glad he didn’t kill the dog, though; I would have turned on him!) and essentially go on offense by confusing the trio with his new identities and the fact that he’s still alive after all. It was great to see Ricky taking it to them this time and surprising and unnerving Virgil and Merlin. His scheming even brings him to the real lives, the “mainstream” lives, of Virgil and Merlin, which he uses as leverage to draw out Rumpelstiltskin to the burned ruins of his Cape Cod home for a final encounter. Ever confident that he, as an assassin, can best a mere analyst, Rumpelstiltskin forgets two things: 1.) Earlier in the book, Katzenbach mentioned Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and the main takeaway: bring the battle to familiar ground, so you have the advantage; Ricky did that; and 2.) As Ricky reminds Rumpelstiltskin before shooting him in the shoulder and arm, “You forget something. Dr. Starks has already died.” In other words, he had nothing to lose and Rumpelstiltskin was no longer dealing with a foe he had familiarized himself with over the years. As a matter of fact, one of the twists was that Rumpelstiltskin had taken on the identity of Zimmerman and stood face-to-face in therapy sessions with Dr. Starks. That was how he studied and knew so much about the doctor. Then, Rumpelstiltskin had the real Zimmerman kill himself as part of the game.
There are two things we never quite learn, though: a.) we still don’t know who Rumpelstiltskin actually is, but I suppose it doesn’t matter; and b.) we don’t know if he survived his wounds. Ricky didn’t want to kill him, but he did shoot him. Still, he made sure he was rescued by local EMTs.
Taking the opportunity of his new life, at the end of the novel, Ricky lives in Haiti helping the poor, atoning for decades spent catering to the rich (although maladies of the mind affects everyone; class is of no importance).
I believe this was my first Katzenbach book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m always going to be game (heh) for a psychological thriller that also weaves in interesting discussions and reflections about philosophy and existential crises. The book was maybe a smidge long and perhaps stretched itself in how capable Ricky was able to become within nine months, but I enjoyed the ride all the same.