Psychiatrist Dr. Judd Stevens is having a very awful week. After borrowing the doctor’s coat, one of his patients is murdered. Then the good doctor’s secretary is also killed. Stevens seems to be next on the killer’s list. And to top it all off, the police do not think he is in danger. In fact, the investigating detective thinks he is the murderer. The police seem determined to arrest, rather than protect, Stevens.
The Naked Face Sidney Sheldon’s first novel, written in 1970, is a good old-fashioned murder mystery, lacking the twisty plots of Sheldon’s later books. The plot is pretty straightforward as Dr. Stevens tries to work out who killed his patient and his secretary, all the while trying to also prove that he is not a double murderer.
The good doctor is also in a conflict with the detective assigned to the case, Detective McGreavy. McGreavy and Stevens have a history (one in which, in real life, would have had the detective removed from the case).
As Stevens goes about his dual missions, he reviews several of his patients’ taped sessions and also the transcripts, looking for a clue if one of them might have committed the crimes. Was it the sexually compulsive former actress? Was it the paranoid, thinking someone, maybe every one, is out to kill him, so he struck first? Or is it the beautiful young woman that will not tell the doctor her real problem? And so on and so on. Sheldon seems to be fascinated by this part of his own writing and this part of the novel goes on for a bit too long.
However, the book does not lack for action as the doctor is chased multiple times (or at least thinks he is being pursued). There are a number of near misses for Stevens too, which he can’t seem to get the police to believe really happened, or at least, where aimed at him.
Written over 40 years ago, the book shows its age in how the African-American characters speak and how they are regarded by the others. Also, there is a nasty, if accurate for the times, homophobic streak in the novel as well. None of this would be acceptable in a novel published today.
The denouement is both a surprise and most people will think it is either brilliant or terribly cheesy. This assessment of the book is going for “brilliant” as the apt choice. The bottom line is that the novel is altogether a pretty good read, if a bit talky for a murder action mystery.