Primary Obsessions

Primary Obsessions, Charles Demers

By Charles Demers – Vancouver, B.C., cognitive behavioral therapist Annick Boudreau is the protagonist in this new psychological thriller. She’s compassionate and confident about her treatment strategy, even though the work with her new patient, Sanjay Desai, is slow. Desai suffers from a primarily cognitive (i.e., in his thoughts) obsessive compulsive disorder, characterized by uncontrollable and distressingly violent thoughts—in his case, involving his mother.

Boudreau is unfailingly encouraging, but Desai is convinced he’s a monster. He’s so frightened by these blood-soaked thoughts that he’s moved out of the family home and into a cheap apartment with Jason, a bouncer in a gangster-owned bar and strip club. Jason’s best friend is another bouncer there, not bright enough to hold down the job, probably, except that his uncle owns the place. They make Desai’s home life miserable. To escape, he turns his noise-cancelling headphones up high.

Boudreau wants Desai to write the down his violent thoughts in a therapy journal for later discussion. She reassures him that primary obsessives do not act on their thoughts, but her conviction is shaken when Jason is brutally murdered. The police find Desai in the apartment, wearing his headphones, and washing his hands and arms up to his elbows. He claims he didn’t hear a thing. Then they find his therapy journal.

After some soul-searching, Boudreau is convinced Sanjay is innocent, if only she could explain about his condition and about the diary. Professional ethics prevent her from doing so unless he gives permission. These are interesting dilemmas, not usually addressed in crime fiction.

She keeps Desai’s secrets with her long-suffering boyfriend Philip too. The dialog between them is always believable and often funny. Meanwhile, the murdered man’s best friend posts an expletive-filled, all-caps Facebook rant, naming Desai as the killer: “THIS IS WHERE POLITICAL CORRECTNESS LANDED US TOO WHERE MENTALLY ILLS HAVE MORE RIGHTS THAN A NORMAL PERSON.” All the “likes” and “shares” this post attracts are a chilling reminder of the persistent stigma of mental illness.

With the authorities convinced they have their perp, and unable to explain to them about Desai’s diagnosis and the therapy journal, Boudreau decides to investigate a bit herself, starting with Mike, the Facebook poster with the permanent Caps Lock. Soon she’s in over her head, and her queries make her a target of the gangsterish club owners.

Author Demers presents Boudreau with a number of compelling personal and professional dilemmas. Despite the seriousness of the topic, the book is never ponderous and is, on the contrary, a pleasure to read. Demers is a comedian, actor, playwright, screenwriter, and political activist. Some of these experiences clearly help him write lively dialog. Demers lives in Vancouver and uses his admiration for that lovely city to bring it to life for his readers.

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