With The Placebo Effect, Toronto writer and theatre professional David Roten-berg delivers an effective, if somewhat workmanlike, thriller possessed of an enthralling undercurrent that allows it to transcend its genre and shine on its own terms.
Like his creator, Decker Roberts is an acting teacher. A former stage director and widower estranged from his 19-year-old son, Decker lives alone in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood. Unknown to the world at large, he has a special gift: he can discern when people are lying and when they are telling the truth. He supplements the income from his acting classes (which also benefit from his peculiar talent) by taking on corporate clients – observing job interviews, legal depositions, and the like, and providing feedback about the veracity of the people he’s scrutinizing.
His second career, however, isn’t as clandestine as he thinks. Decker is not only under observation by the American National Security Agency (which has a special branch for monitoring him and others like him), he’s also drawn into a high-stakes gambit by a pharmaceutical company, and a homeless man seems to have a message to deliver to him. When Decker’s house is set on fire (with him in it) and his finances destroyed, he goes on the lam, intent on surviving but also on determining what transpired to transform his gift into a curse.
At first, The Placebo Effect appears to be a by-the-numbers thriller. We’ve encountered this sort of thing dozens, if not hundreds, of times before, and there are passages early on that are eye-rollingly clichéd. As the novel progresses, however, Rotenberg reveals a surprising depth and intricacy, not in the mechanics of his plot, but at the level of characterization. The Placebo Effect, it turns out, is a thoughtful, challenging novel masquerading as a typical thriller. The surface storyline wraps up succinctly, but questions remain on both the narrative and philosophical levels – a perfect set-up for the planned sequel.