The protagonist of Michael Robotham's "Shatter" is Professor Joe O'Loughlin, a clinical psychologist who teaches behavioral psychology at the University of Bath. He has been married for twenty years to Julianne, a beautiful and successful high-flyer in the corporate world, and they dote on their two daughters, twelve-year old Charlie and three-year-old Emma. Unfortunately, Joe's health has been deteriorating since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease four years ago. In spite of tremors, twitches, and other alarming symptoms, he is determined not to let his illness define him.
Joe's fortunes take a turn for the worse when he is asked to talk a jumper down from the Clifton Suspension Bridge. When he reaches the site, Joe sees an unidentified female standing in the rain, naked except for a pair of red shoes. She is conducting an intense conversation on a mobile phone. The potential suicide barely notices Joe's presence and is not interested in anything that he has to say. This disturbing encounter foreshadows future similar incidents that will challenge O'Loughlin's ability to cope, both professionally and personally.
The villain turns out to be a psychopath who knows how to bend minds. He boasts, "You've got to be smart. You've got to know people--what frightens them, how they think, what they cling to when they're in trouble." He uses his considerable intellect and patience to threaten and intimidate those he hates. When the police, led by the tough and aggressive Detective Inspector Veronica Cray, finally comprehend what is going on, they desperately try to locate and apprehend the killer. Joe and his buddy, retired DI Vincent Ruiz, lend a hand in the investigation, but they are stymied by a phantom who strikes at will and escapes with ease. What is his motive and what will his endgame be? In spite of Julianne's protests that he is endangering his family, Joe refuses to back off.
"Shatter" has some powerful and wrenching moments, but it is not an unqualified success. Many readers will be skeptical that law enforcement officials would allow a civilian psychologist and a retired detective to attend briefings, read case notes, interview witnesses, and speak to the media. In addition, the identity of the perpetrator, "a bully, a sadist, and [a] control freak," is given away too early. He is a one-dimensional monster, straight out of central casting. Another plot point that might raise a few eyebrows is whether this individual's methods of mind control would work on otherwise confident, poised, and worldly women. Although the conclusion has its share of excitement, it is too predictable to be truly harrowing.
On the plus side, Joe is a sympathetic and caring person as well as an accomplished psychologist who constructs a fairly accurate behavioral profile of the suspect. At first, his marriage to the lovely Julianne appears solid, but it is actually developing ever-widening fissures; Robotham depicts both their tender and wrenching encounters with skill and compassion. The dialogue is generally clever and witty, and there are are some intriguing secondary characters, such as Darcy Wheeler, a mature sixteen-year whom Joe takes under his wing after her mother's death. In spite of its flaws, "Shatter" is a workmanlike and fast-moving novel that should appeal to fans of psychological suspense.