The logic of the delusion – “The Fregoli Delusion” by Michael J. McCann

Description by the author / blurb:

When the only eyewitness to the murder of a billionaire suffers from a rare psychotic disorder that causes a delusional misidentification of people, Lieutenant Hank Donaghue must search for evidence of the killer among the wealthiest members of Glendale’s social class – including close friends of his own mother. Detective Karen Stainer, on the other hand, firmly believes that the eyewitness was not delusional and is telling the truth when he identifies the killer as the man he believes is persecuting him!
Fregoli Delusion front cover thumb


The Fregoli Syndrome is a condition related to paranoid schizophrenia. A syndrome is a cluster of symptoms the causal factor of which has not yet been established. Thus it cannot be described as a disease in psychiatric classification. The Fregoli patient believes himself to be persecuted, but always by the same person. Without that a specific trigger could be identified, the patient misidentifies different people as the one person he thinks has become a threat to him. With some patients the brain areas responsible for facial recognition are atrophied; with others, not. The Fregoli Syndrome remains a matter of investigation.

Matter of investigation for Lieutenant Hank and Detective Stainer is the shooting of Herbert Jarrett, president and CEO of Jarrett Corporation, a company whose revenue surpasses the billion-dollar-mark. The man was on the brink of retirement. The arrangement for the succession to this legacy had to result in changes that could not be pleasing for everyone. Thus, the police work concentrates on his company. It was Brett Paris, the son of the financial manager, who found the body of the victim. He says he has also seen the armed criminal: a divisional head of the company called Holland. But his testimony could not stand in court – because Brett suffers from the Fregoli Syndrome and his boundlessly multiplied persecutor is, of course, the very Mr. Holland he tells who snatched the camera from him he was making photos with on the crime scene. Was Holland the murderer, as Stainer believes her gut instinct insist? Or won’t the Homicide detectives fall prey to the Fregoli delusion themselves if they give credit to Brett’s testimony?

In this investigation Homicide is moving in the dominion of the rich and the beautiful. Hank is an offspring of this realm and handles its manners with enough familiarity as to be recognised by it as one of them. But Stainer suffers from the ruthless show of power in this world, where the partner of a law firm, whose client is a suspect, calls his acquaintance the Judge at night, who is not amused and goes on calling the State Attorney also asleep, who is less amused still and passes down the command to Homicide that the suspect is to be let free and the evidence against him to be considered flimsy. „It’s not fair! I try so fucking hard!” Stainer exclaims at a point. And, in senseless fury, she accuses Hank: “ … you’re fucking letting him [Holland] get away with it because he’s rich, his lawyer’s rich, and everybody else in this fucking case is rich!” The case afflicts Stainer on a more personal level still, because her mother had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In a moment of self-abandon she voices the fear she might be running into the disease herself.
Now Hank is not perfectly immune against Stainer’s malady with the world of the powerful, but he rationalises the experience. On a fundraising party in the stratosphere he was born into, Hank realises that there is a cynical underpinning of reality to the Fregoli Delusion: everyone around him, he thinks, is of the same interchangeable type – everyone is just as avid for power and as shallow about his morals.
In relation to his police carer, Hank also wonders what is happening to his own personality. A cop in his Homicide section, confronted with a horrific murder in organised crime, breaks down and quits her job. She prefers that moral and emotional revulsion make her incapable for her job instead of suppressing these in order to continue with it. Poignantly she says she doesn’t want to become another Stainer. Hank realises that his own isolation, that is, negation of affect has reached the point of no return, when feelings about crimes are immediately compartmentalised and shunned, so as not to be felt any more He faces the fact he has already crossed the line – and wonders what will await him now. He hopes there is truth to his anticipation of light through the shadows of this beyond.

It is much to the benefit of the novel that the characters display genuine development as their convictions and emotions are influenced by the changes in their investigation. They are not just doing their job like like the exemplary tabloid detectives who shine their mechanical smile whatever gritty issue they are dealing with. No; as much as McCann’s characters are devoted to their work, it also leaves profound marks on them. Due measure is taken of the bruises.

Hank’s psychological use of rationalisation set apart, rationalisation is a critical medium in any detective novel because evidence has to be collected, the suspects have to be sorted and the guilty has to be pointed down according to rational principles. The reader either follows the working of these principles as a passive spectator, or he himself is called to rattle his brains for their unfolding, as in the classic ‘whodunnit’. In the ‘Fregoli Delusion’, of course, the list of suspects is not just limited to one person. But from watching Hank and Stainer go about their investigation the reader cannot catch any leads the two might have missed or draw conclusions the police team has not reached yet. On the level of information and reflection the reader is always on the same par with the protagonists. Neither of them can make an advance on the other. As such, it is of striking importance that the unrolling of the rational principles, which the reader can only observe, stands the cold proof of logic.

In some instances, it is doubtful whether this is fully the case.

The first condition of logic any story whatsoever needs to fulfil is internal coherency. In this review, I presume on the coherency by linking the topic of organised crime with a former case, in a former book, to which the allusions must pertain (this is the first novel of McCann I’ve read).
Hank is called to another crime scene that has been the handiwork of organised crime. It is there, not anywhere else, that the cop already mentioned has her breakdown. Then the businessman Jerome Mah, who apparently has his shady connections to the gangs, accosts Hank on the fundraising party and Hank hints at the topic of organised crime.
Now the connection to the Jarrett case at hand seems to be drawn in an afterthought, when it is mentioned that Mah also is a director of Jarrett Corporation and Hank asks him upfront about his alibi for the time of the murder. But it appears the author had in mind to make for a stronger connection and dropped that idea later on. A trace of it is left in the conference in the war room of Homicide. Evidence is evaluated and a list of suspects is drawn up. Hanks queries whether there might be a relation between the murder and organised crime. When answered that no such relation has been found, he says he will himself try to solve his doubt about it. However, he never tries. Apart from that, there is an indication the suspect list has been larger originally. “Hank stood up, grabbed a marker, and drew a line under Jerome Mah’s name on the suspect board.” This sentence seems to be a leftover of the former conception, because in the present text Mah really is only written on the persons of interest board and isn’t added to the suspect whiteboard.

In the conference, while summarising the evidence, the CSI officer tells what Jarrett did in the morning, until he was shot. The description of the conference is as close a look into real police work as a novel can offer – the same holds true for the medical examination of the corpse at which Hank assisted before. But later in the book the realism is abruptly suspended. It turns out Jarrett’s e-mail program hasn’t been examined by the CSI before the conference as closely as it should have been. Hank gets the information by a phone call. The point when this happens in the novel is a choice just a little too convenient, because it freshens up an alternate suspect lead that has dried up due to lack of evidence.
It is possible that, the first time, the software hasn’t been searched as careful as the confidence of the CSI officer in the war room suggests, as well as the realism of the situation demands – since it primarily happens in the kind of TV show jocularly mentioned in the conference, that new evidence pops up where it hasn’t been found before, despite best efforts. Therefore, to uphold rational principles, it should have been clarified why the mail program was re-examined in the first place and why the pertinent information hasn’t been obtained by the first check.

Finally, the murderer confesses his crime to a close relative and she herself nearly accomplishes a murder herself to cover the crime. Nevertheless, when she is asked by Hank and Stainer whether she keeps a weapon in the house, she admits to it. But then she can’t find the weapon, which strongly suggests that the murderer has taken it form her, to take his shot at Jarrett. This must not be a break in logic, since it is till possible that the murderer confessed his crime to her, without telling that he extracted the weapon from her house to execute it. But it is hardly believable she would lead them to the desk where she kept her weapon to begin with. From another drawer Steiner also pulls files that attest to a personality structure of the suspect that raises the probability for his perpetration of a capital crime.

The strict adherence to rational principles is pivotal for any detective novel, particularly for this kind, where the reader assumes the role of the passive observer. For this reason the fallacies in rationality, although few and of little weight, have deterred me from a higher rating. Such a rating the story could else have claimed, because it starts off from an interesting subject, progresses with a quick pace, takes an uncommonly realistic stance toward crime investigation and gives convincing insight into the psychological struggle of characters. Written from the perspective of these qualities, this review would have taken a much more positive outlook, but due to the importance of the strict implementation of logic, the rating would have remained the same. ‘The Fregoli Delusion’ is an interesting novel for anyone searching for detective stories that cut short on fantastical mechanisms for case solution and go beyond tabloid characters.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

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