Guilt, By G. H. Ephron, St. Martins Minotaur, 304pp, $23.95
There's an old cliche that ''Those who can, do. Those who can't, criticize." Insulting, sure, but perhaps there is a grain of truth there as well. It's an interesting situation, therefore, when a book reviewer writes a novel. One can't help but wonder, can the critic do? Can she live up to the standards she sets for other writers' work? In the case of Hallie Ephron, the answer is yes.
The writing team behind the pseudonym G. H. Ephron is Hallie Ephron (one of the ubiquitous writing Ephron sisters) and Dr. Don Davidoff, a practicing forensic psychologist. Together, they bring top-notch credentials and serious writing talent that would be the envy of many authors. Coauthor Ephron also writes a monthly mystery-books column for The Boston Globe.
''Guilt" is the latest book in a series featuring Dr. Peter Zak, a forensic neuropsychologist specializing in the relationship between the human brain and behavior. Zak is usually called on by defense attorneys to testify on their clients' behalf, providing his expert insight into people's motivations. This time out, though, he is working the other side of the street, helping the police in their hunt for a serial bomber.
A killer is preying on Boston's legal community, attacking first at Harvard Law School, then at the Cambridge courthouse. Each time, the madman detonates a large device without warning, and the casualties are high. The second time is a near-miss for Zak, who is nearly caught in the blast. The only clues left behind are scattered leaflets announcing the killer's passion for anarchy and chaos.
Although it isn't his specialty, Zak agrees to help consult the police department on its investigation, compiling a profile of the unknown subject and offering theories about his psychological makeup. He even takes on an active role in the manhunt when the killer begins e-mailing the doctor directly, sharing the twisted, pseudo-intellectual reasons behind his campaign of terror.
At the same time, former cop-turned-investigator Annie Squires, Zak's girlfriend, pursues a case of her own, trying to assist a battered wife who can't seem to sever the ties to her abusive husband. When Squires learns that the wife-beater was married once before, to a woman who disappeared under mysterious circumstances, she is determined more than ever to find the evidence to convince her friend that she and her daughter are in serious danger.
Although the mad bomber who distributes cryptic clues to taunt the police is a shopworn cliche of the suspense genre, the authors handle it well, incorporating enough fresh details and an interesting spin on the otherwise familiar plot to form an entertaining story.
Zak and Squires make for compelling characters -- intelligent, believable, and likable people who engender the reader's interest and empathy. Some of the lesser players aren't as finely drawn, especially the battered wife and the violent spouse, figures we've met too many times, but sometimes it's necessary for a writer to use stock characters, and they don't detract much from the story.
The plot of ''Guilt" is sufficiently complex to keep the reader engaged, but not so much as to get bogged down in the details. The dual pursuit structure works well to generate suspense, especially when it appears the two cases might somehow be intertwined.
Many readers are fascinated with books that deal with the inner workings of the mind, and there is no end of material to create exciting plots in the realm of psychology. These stories work particularly well in the mystery and suspense genre, as has been proved by best-selling authors such as Stephen White and Jonathan Kellerman. The team of G. H. Ephron makes a worthy addition to that list.
The authors strike the right balance in ''Guilt," including enough specific psychological jargon and information to spice up the narrative and lend credibility to the plot, but never so much that it becomes intrusive or confusing. Ephron and Davidoff wisely realize that a mystery novel should never read like a textbook, which is death to any sense of tension.
In collaborative novels, the narrative is often disjointed and the style awkward, reflecting a less than seamless union of two voices. With ''Guilt," though, that flaw is nowhere to be found, and the story reads like the work of a single, talented writer. This is one piece of popular fiction that anyone can read guilt-free.
David J. Montgomery is a freelance book reviewer and the editor of Mystery Ink (www.mysteryinkonline.com).