Bruce Perrin, Half a Mind

A book review for Mystery Thriller Week

Half a Mind is a strangely engaging tale about the possible uses and abuses of brain research. The story consists largely of the first-person narrative of Sam “Doc” Price, a relatively inexperienced cognitive psychologist whose job is to act as a “disinterested third party” in evaluating the training and safety requirements of governmental contracts undertaken by companies with whom Sam’s employer, Ruger-Phillips, is not directly connected. His current task is to investigate a device which exploits neural plasticity to rewire the brains of its subjects in ostensibily benign ways.

Sam’s team consists of two people besides himself – Sue, a colleague at Ruger-Phillips, and Nicole, a biomedical engineer from yet another company, to whom Sam is strongly attracted (he repeatedly describes her as “cute”, which appears to be the highest level of physical attractiveness that he recognizes). The machine they are charged with investigating was originally designed to help deal with phantom limb pain but the researchers noticed that it could be used to improve memory power spectacularly, by reinforcing normal left-hemisphere memory functions with repurposed right-side neural activity. Essentially, the machine tricks the right hemisphere into believing that the left side is no longer functioning so that neural plasticity redirects the relevant areas of the right side into performing short-term memory functions. Of course, to derive permanent “benefit” from this trick, the neural reshaping needs to be permanent (or at least long-term) which entails a certain loss of normal right-side functions, including long-term memory, empathy and spatial and artistic awareness. A price well worth paying, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Sam’s investigation proceeds at a leisurely pace and without a sense of urgency, his narrative interspersed with shorter passages describing the activities of someone known (to himself at least) as the Experimentor, whose intentions for the Hemisphere Blocker are nefarious if vague. As far as Sam and his colleagues are concerned, their task is to verify and validate procedures in connection with a contract which has a certain inherent interest but no major real-world ramifications. When the principal researcher on the project, Dr Ned Worthington, dies suddenly, nobody except his widow thinks that his death is suspicious and Sam has to be forcefully reminded by his boss that his investigative role is limited to the safety and training requirements of the project.

The eventual explosive confrontation between Sam and the Experimentor does not arrive till very late in the story and my main reservation about the book is that, when that confrontation finally occurs, it’s unfortunately a bit rushed. Sam wraps the narrative up very quickly, recounting the eventual fates of the characters in what amounts, structurally, to an epilogue.

This is not a conventionally constructed thriller and I’d recommend it primarily to those for whom that isn’t a primary consideration. I enjoyed it thoroughly, though I won’t attempt to deny that it would have been improved by a bit more thought over the ending and more attention, in that respect at least, to the usual genre conventions. Bruce Perrin has already written a second book in the series and I downloaded the sample chapter from the Kindle store to see whether I thought it would be worthwhile to pursue Sam’s adventures further. I do.

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