Montpelier author Susan Ritz’s first novel, “A Dream to Die For,” is set in a small Vermont town, the fictionalized capital city with some pleasingly recognizable stores, bars, restaurants and streets. Every character knows way too much (and its corollary, not enough) about everyone else. Celeste Fortune (what a great name for a murder-mystery heroine: Miss Fortune!) and her former lover Jake Kelly, an opaque but perhaps honorable man, relentlessly upgrade their nervous barriers to love and affection. Each is full of fear and desire, but they can’t communicate.
Larry Blatsky is a ruthless, narcissistic therapist who hypnotizes his patients with their own dreams and desires. He is creating a cult to serve interests we don’t know about. Some are obvious; others will surprise you. His hapless victims, The Dreamers, spy on each other’s lives and work hard trying to enter each other’s dreams. They want to merge into a Collective Unconscious. They keep journals full of true and imagined secrets, and Larry gossips about them all over town.
What kind of therapist reveals intimate details of his patients’ lives? Is he trying to help people? Or is there a sinister motive? He offers no credentials in psychology, but his acolytes don’t even notice. He has them — most of them — thoroughly snookered. His cunning manipulations lead to arguments, chases, warnings, accidents, seances, generous helpings of virtual reality and, of course, his death. He’s a guy who really earns his murder.
Tensions develop as characters try to manage a lavish spread of conflicts: between dreaming and waking, health and weakness, logic and magic, surface and depth, believers and skeptics, townies and outsiders, clear sight and hallucination, loneliness and solidarity, and more interestingly, between Jake and Celeste. Their maddeningly indefinite relationship is completely believable.
Celeste has been a rootless wanderer with a pile of intrusive damaging memories, gifts from her hypercritical parents. She’s still young and nimble enough to pack all her valuables into two suitcases. She’s impulsive and defensive, and she is determined to knock down the barricades to love that she has, for good reasons, created and cultivated.
Jake, the ideal Vermont man, is desirable but opaque to her. He has thighs like trees. He smells great. He tries to protect her, and he loves her. But his mysterious hyper-masculine silences and his sudden disappearances startle and confuse her and make her doubt herself. What is he hiding? But Celeste would rather depend on a tarot reading than her own intuition or reason.
The novel gallops through a thicket of well-placed clues that both advance the plot and also confound the reader. This mischief is enjoyable, as is de rigeur in a murder mystery. The Vermont images are resonant: cheery wood stoves, treacherous black ice, mysterious rifle shots in the woods, the perfect foamy head on a local draft beer.
Mundane but vivid details of life in the north country anchor the novel and keep the surreal elements from launching it into the firmament. Serious ethical questions thread through the social and psychological issues raised by the story, but they do not overwhelm it. Just enough information is withheld to make the conclusion shocking but plausible.
Early in the novel a spooky shadow of a marionette dancing on a curtain clues us in to the core idea: Things are not what they seem.
Rhoda Carroll taught for 35 years at Norwich University and then at the Union Institute and University’s Adult Degree Program until she (and it) retired. “A Dream to Die For” is published by Rootstock Publishing. For information, go online to www.rootstockpublishing.com.