Chance by Kem Nunn

The essential feature of a shared psychotic disorder (folie à deux) is a delusion that develops in an otherwise healthy individual who is involved in a close relationship with another person (sometimes termed the “inducer” or “the primary case”) who already has a psychotic disorder with prominent delusions and who, in general, is the dominant in the relationship and is thus able, over time to gradually impose the delusional system on the more passive and initially healthy individual.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have an interest in fiction involving therapists–add that to noir and you’ve immediately got my attention, so when I read about Kem Nunn’s new book, Chance, I thought I’d probably like it. I was wrong, I didn’t like it; I loved it.

chanceEldon Chance is a middle-aged San-Francisco based forensic neuropsychiatrist, whose life, until just recently was going extremely well. Married for over 20 years to “aspiring photographer,” Diane, and the father of a teenage daughter, Nicole, his life seemed enviable. But Diane’s affair with “a dyslexic personal trainer ten years her junior,” has led to divorce proceedings. Their pricey home is up for sale, Nicole will no longer be able to attend her expensive private school, and Chance has moved into a tiny apartment, so tiny, it can’t house his expensive antique French furniture set which looks ridiculous jammed into its new surroundings. Things aren’t quite bad enough apparently … Chance receives a notice from the IRS that he owes over 200,000 in back taxes and fines.

Chance considers selling his fancy French furniture to a nearby antique shop he frequents. Problem is that because it lacks the brass metalwork, it’s not considered complete and he can only get 50-60 thousand for it. If the furniture had its original metalwork, however, the set would fetch around twice that according to antique shop owner Carl. Carl, however, employs a giant of man, an incredible craftsman named D (whose bald head sports a huge tattoo of a black widow spider), and according to Carl, D can replace the metalwork to Chance’s furniture so cleverly that no one will be able to tell the difference. With the metalwork intact, the furniture can be sold for top dollar.

Normally a very cautious person, Chance, pressured by necessity and now unmoored from the supports of his previously structured life, begins to make a series of bad decisions–one of those decisions being, of course, to sell the furniture with the newly attached metalwork crafted by D, and while that is fraudulent, Chance’s mistakes go further than that. We know he’s going to head for disaster from the way he thinks about the female patients who come his way. Bear in mind that he’s not dealing with mentally healthy women when he finds himself noting their attractiveness, their sexuality and possible availability. One of his patients is a substitute teacher named Jaclyn Blackstone who appears to suffer from a dissociative identity disorder. While Jaclyn is estranged from her violent, jealous husband, Oakland homicide detective, Raymond Blackstone, she claims that a second personality, “Jackie Black,” engages in rough sex with Blackstone. Dr. Chance finds himself attracted to this patient, but which one tweaks his interest: Jaclyn or Jackie?

Chance can dissect human psychological problems in a few sentences and produce neatly written reports that will appear as evidence in court cases, but as it turns out, he sucks at predicting human behaviour or avoiding disasters in his personal life. Involvement with the elusive Jaclyn combined with the threat of physical danger sends Chance to D, a disciple of Nietzsche, initially for advice, and then for assistance as Chance becomes increasingly drawn into the dark secrets of Jaclyn’s world. Unlike Chance, D doesn’t live inside textbooks and knows that sometimes you have to be prepared to back up your position with violence.  As D tells Chance, “there are no victims just volunteers.” D, who has a thing for exotic weaponry, sees where Chance is heading and warns him:

“Ever heard of The Frozen Lake?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Then you haven’t heard of it. It’s the thing you want so badly you’ll go to the center of a frozen lake to reach it.”

“Where the ice is the thinnest.”

“But you won’t think about that. Everyone else will, just not you.”

With D as a guide to the netherworld of violent encounters, physical confrontation and surveillance, Chance follows Jaclyn down the “rabbit hole,” and one of the big questions is: who can he trust? Is D, with his penchant for violence, a fantasist? And what about Jaclyn? Who is she really? What happened to her last therapist? Is she, as Chance’s fellow therapist suggests, just “finding one man to save her from another?”  Chance deals with various mental issues all day long–but in the past there’s been a nice clinical line between him and the patients he evaluates as part of the report process for insurance companies and court cases. His life has been admirable, clean, ordered and now it’s in chaos, spinning out of control, and D advises Chance to change his role:

People talk about self defense. Self-defense is bullshit. I’m defending, I’m losing. I want the other guy defending while I attack. Doesn’t make any difference how many people I’m fighting. I want them all defending because that means I’m dictating the action. I’m the feeder. As long as I’m the feeder, I win. I don’t care if it’s a dozen. Right now, this cop is the feeder. You’re the receiver. You need to turn that around.

Chance is a fantastic noir novel–that’s not to say that it isn’t flawed because it is. The novel is padded with patient evaluations and a few pieces of diagnostic information, and if you (unlike me) don’t like novels that include therapy, this aspect of the plot may have no appeal. The ending is dragged out, and there’s one knife lesson scene towards the end of the book that seems ridiculous, but frankly I don’t care; I thoroughly enjoyed the book for its psychological complexities, its setting, its characters (D Rocks!) and the entire way that the book exemplifies the noir genre. Kem Nunn is termed an author of “Surf Noir,” but Chance, a very cinematic novel, is set in San Francisco–a city, with unconventionality practically a by-law, that is a natural setting for noir. Chance has spent over twenty years building his life and his reputation, and now his life is in disintegration, falling around him like a house of cards. He’s tempted by money; he’s lured by sex–add corrupt cops, Romanian gangsters and a run down massage parlor in Oakland, and suddenly he’s in so deep there may not be a way out….

Chance imagined himself no stranger to the machinations by which people went about establishing the architecture of their own imprisonment, the citadels from whose basement windows one might on occasion hear their cries.

Review copy.

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19 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Nunn Kem

19 responses to “Chance by Kem Nunn

  1. Brian Joseph

    Shared psychotic disorder seems to be a very interesting disorder.

    I can believe an expert in psychology falling into his own problems of this sort. Medical experts, legal experts and other professionals seem to do things all the time that their experience should prevent them from doing. It seems like a little bit of irony woven into the Universe.

  2. I like the combination psychology and crime as much as you do, so this has my attention. What is “Surf Noir”?

    • Surf Noir…books set in and around coastal areas/beaches most commonly of California with the beaches as a backdrop for murder or crime. The books are mired in the culture of the society in these areas: bikers, hamburger shacks, surf shops, girls in bikinis, well you get the picture. Don Winslow also writes Surf Noir. In theory, Surf Noir could take place in Hawaii, but I’ve only ever read S.N. books set in California

  3. “Chance can dissect human psychological problems in a few sentences and produce neatly written reports that will appear as evidence in court cases, but as it turns out, he sucks at predicting human behaviour or avoiding disasters in his personal life.” Well, it’s like GPs who smoke. Don’t they know everything about lung cancer?

    Surf Noir, thanks for the explanation. I’ll never stop to marvel at Anglophone’s creativity for book genres. We French need to do something about this. So I declare that all books set in Brittany (lots of them, second setting in France after Paris I think) are Crêpes Novels.

  4. “Chance is a fantastic noir novel–that’s not to say that it isn’t flawed because it is. The novel is padded with patient evaluations and a few pieces of diagnostic information, and if you (unlike me) don’t like novels that include therapy, this aspect of the plot may have no appeal. The ending is dragged out, and there’s one knife lesson scene towards the end of the book that seems ridiculous, but frankly I don’t care” That’s the spirit as my son would say! The thing is that if you really like a book, you might be aware of a flaw or two but you really don’t care … So, then, is it a flaw? There was a point when I was reading Barracuda, my recent read, when I started to think, this is getting a bit long and what does this really add. But I was enjoying it so much that by the end I completely forgot that I’d had those feelings until someone else mentioned the issue. Flaw or not?

    • The issues in the book (or any book) need to be pointed out, I think. Sometimes you can read a completely positive review or a completely negative review and you’re left wondering if the two reviewers even read the sane book.
      Someone who doesn’t appreciate noir might be bothered by the elements I mentioned. Other readers might have psych evals. I found them fascinating. I could see someone adding up the words in those included reports and finding fault with that aspect of the book. As I said I loved it, but readers might want to be aware.

  5. This does sound fun. Is this the guy who co-wrote The Tower? Or am I mixing up my authors.

    I think it is important to bring out flaws as well as what works, and I’m glad you did so. Sometimes as WG says, one person’s flaws aren’t anothers. Besides, it’s a rare book that’s genuinely flawless.

    • I checked out the titles of all his books after reading this, but if he co-wrote a title I probably would have missed it. So in other words, I don’t know if he co-wrote it or not.

      I’ve thought a great deal about this book since I read it. It actually impacted the way I see relationships through D’s descriptions of how the Feeder controls the action (see quote above).

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