Face Blind by Lance Hawvermale follows a man with a neurological disorder, prosopagnosia, that prevents him from recognizing human faces as he confronts an enigmatic killer in Chile's Atacama desert—the most lifeless place on earth (Available August 23, 2016).
I’ve always thought two of the more intriguing protagonists finding themselves in a world of mierda were from the 1966 stage production of Wait Until Dark (later adapted into the Audrey Hepburn film), featuring a blind woman going up against three men who have invaded her home, and Jonathan Nolan’s 2001 short story “Memento Mori” (also made into a movie—Hollywood knows a good thing), where a man with backwards amnesia continually tattoos himself to remember imperative details related to his wife’s murder. Both of these individuals persevered without the benefit of certain functions that most of us take for granted. In Face Blind, Lance Hawvermale should have Hollywood warming up their keyboards because he has tapped into a different, brilliant deprivation plot device: prosopagnosia.
According to the National Institutes of Health, prosopagnosia (more commonly known as face-blindness) is described as “a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces…[resulting from] abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate the neutral systems that control facial perception and memory.” Some cases are so severe that the person can’t recognize their own face in the mirror. Actor Brad Pitt had brought some attention to the subject in 2013 when he came forward revealing a mild form of the condition.
In Lance Hawvermale’s Face Blind, main character Gabriel Traylin suffers from a severe case of prosopagnosia. He’s learned to cope, finding employment as an astronomer in The Atacama Desert of northern Chile with coworkers Vicente (Vic) and Rubat, which suits him well—fewer people to contend, less headaches to contend. Still, there’s a true sense of loneliness that exists.
He shook his head, wondering what Vicente looked like. Even as they sat beside each other on their matching ATVs, he felt separated from him by a chasm that Vic could never comprehend. Vic looked exactly the same as Rubat, exactly the same as the Sultan of Brunei, exactly the same as everyone else. Gabriel Traylin lived on a planet of seven billion people, but not one of them did he know on sight.
Trouble begins for Gabriel while taking a stroll around the observatory: he witnesses a murder from afar. Unable to identify the killer moving away in the darkness and unable to recognize facial features of the person lying on the ground—whom he dubs the “Midnight Messenger”—he leaves the body to alert his coworkers and the authorities.
Problem is, upon returning to the scene, the body has disappeared with only a spot of blood remaining. The police take away a sample for testing, but there seems to be a lackadaisical attitude, and not just with the police—Rubat also questions if anything significant happened at all. Vic is more compassionate and helps Gabriel track the blood trail where, at first, it vanishes in the desert.
If nature seems unduly cruel in depleting some individuals of such common tools, it does often provide a way of compensating. In mathematician Marcus Du Sautoy's informative Symmetry: A Mathematical Journey, he writes about how honeybees have extremely poor eyesight—as if looking at the world through a thick glass—and how they are attracted to the flowers they pollinate by dazzling floral shapes and designs. A symbolic language of sorts develops where the more spectacular the design, the better the honeybee sees the “landing zone.” Like the honeybee, Mr. Hawvermale’s Gabriel Traylin has taught himself to work around his handicap by zeroing in on voices and articles of clothing. Like a blind man, his other senses are heightened, which is going to come in handy.
Gabe and Vicente’s desert search eventually leads them to a spinning pinwheel that’s been stuck into the dirt, a dismembered arm of a boy eerily reaching for it.
Gabe dismounted, unable to look away.
Vicente whispered a prayer as Gabe knelt nearby. Before last night, he’d never seen a corpse, and now here was his second in less than twelve hours, a crash course in forensic science, but this was so much worse: The boy’s mouth was open, his tongue and lips like things of wax. The backpack itself wasn’t unusually large, which meant the boy had to be crammed in there, his limbs folded around him so he’d fit. Someone had been transporting him.
Gabriel is convinced that the murders are connected. However, he quickly becomes the prime suspect to the police since he found two bodies within twenty-four hours and there are few other suspects.
A compelling additional thread running through Face Blind is Mira and Luke Westbrook. Fraternal twins, with the brother having Down syndrome and dyslexia—Mira loves Luke unconditionally, but his disabilities have put a strain on her. “Being your twin’s bodyguard did that to you” she laments.
The pair are in Southern Chile looking for science fiction writer Benjamin Cable. He has written one well received novel, This Mayflower Mars, and for years has been suffering writer’s block. Luke, who has never shown an interest in reading because of the difficulty, enjoys Cable’s writing and reads “passages not only fluently but also with a certain amount of eloquence.” When Cable hands Luke a sample of his writing, he reads it with ease, cementing a connection between the two. What that has to do with Gabriel’s search for the killer is one of the joys of reading Hawvermale—every passage builds nicely on what comes before, interlocking in perfect harmony.
Face Blind is a smart thriller that has the right balance of suspense, character development, and action mixed. The key to its success—akin to Wait for Dark and Memento—is that we put ourselves in Gabriel’s POV. How would we handle a debilitating condition, and would we be as courageous in moving forward to discover the identity of a cold-blooded murderer? And then, there’s the quirky element of prosopagnosia fueling the plot to maximum effect. In a medium that is saturated with go-to potboilers, Lance Hawvermale’s novel shines above it, with vibrant writing and exhilarating flair.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and author of The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.