Book review: A Strange Habit of Mind by Andrew Klavan

A Strange Habit of Mind by Andrew Klavan has loads of grief for the characters, and a bounty of suspense and thrills for the reader.

I’ve been aware of Andrew Klavan for quite a while, but not in the context of Andrew Klavan the author. I only recently discovered that he is a writer of crime and suspense novels nominated for the Edgar Award five times and winning twice. I regard Klavan as a brilliant thinker and every time I listen to him speak, I literally come away feeling smarter from having had the experience. When offered the opportunity to read and review A Strange Habit of Mind, I jumped on it and candidly approached the book with high expectations. I wasn’t disappointed.

A superb novel filled with fascinating, multi-dimensional characters and a spellbinding original storytelling.

A Strange Habit of Mind

by Andrew Klavan

Series: Cameron Winter #2

Published by Mysterious Press

Source: Mysterious Press via NetGalley

ISBN 978-1-61316-351-1

Genre(s) Thrillers & Suspense

288 pages

English professor and ex-spy Cameron Winter confronts a Big Tech billionaire to solve the suspicious suicide of a former student

The world of Big Tech is full of eccentric characters, but shamanic billionaire Gerald Byrne may be the strangest of the bunch. The founder of Byrner, a global social media platform, Byrne is known for speaking with vague profundity and for dabbling in esoteric spiritual practices; he wears his hair in a long black ponytail to reveal a large flower tattooed on his neck; he’s universally admired as a visionary, a philanthropist, and a devoted husband and father. And every person who gets in the way of his good work seems to die.

When a former student commits suicide, English professor and ex-spy Cameron Winter takes it upon himself to understand why. The young man was expelled from the university in an unfortunate episode that left Winter sympathetic to his plight; after a prolonged silence, he reached out to his teacher with two words just before taking the fatal plunge from the roof of his San Francisco apartment: “Help me.”

Winter has what he calls “a strange habit of mind”—the ability to imagine himself into a crime scene, to reconstruct it mentally and play through various possible causes and outcomes to understand exactly what took place. When he applies this exercise to Adam Kemp’s desperate final moments, he discovers a troubling inconsistency. And when he learns that Kemp was in a tumultuous relationship with Gerald Byrne’s niece, he begins to suspect that the suicide was the result of a carefully-engineered plot, put in motion by the powerful businessman. 

Featuring the tough-but-learned protagonist from 2021’s When Christmas Comes, A Strange Habit of Mind is a thrilling mystery set in the cutthroat world of tech money and tech influence, where unchecked fortunes produce unstoppable power for a lawless few.

Two time Edgar Award winner Andrew Klavan’s intense sequel to When Christmas Comes (2021) finds Cameron Winter, once a spy with a secret government agency called the Division, now a literature professor at a Midwestern university. Winter receives a two word text from a former student, Adam Kemp: “Help me.” He tries to call Kemp multiple times, but gets no answer. Later he learns his former student who Winter defended against a date rape charge committed suicide by stepping off the roof of his San Francisco apartment building only minutes after texting the plea for help. Troubled by why Kemp hadn’t waited for a reply before choosing suicide, Winter flies to San Francisco to find out more. After speaking with the police detective who investigated Kemp’s death, Winter accepts the official verdict that it was suicide, but some other details the detective provides prompts Winter to dig deeper. Subsequently, he suspects the brother-in-law of Kemp’s girlfriend, an eccentric billionaire tech oligarch, engineered Kemp’s death. Winter has “a strange habit of mind.” He sometimes slips into a meditative state without warning that allows him to see clearly motives and actions that had had puzzled him previously. He has used this quirk more than once to solve problems, avert catastrophes, and even solve crimes. Thinking about the circumstances of Kemp’s death rouses the mental oddity and Winter soon knows for certain that the billionaire, Gerry Byrne, had set in motion the circumstances that provoked Kemp’s suicide. The deeper Winter digs into Byrne, the more examples he finds of individuals the billionaire has destroyed and even murdered who had opposed Byrne’s efforts to mold the world in his personal image. Since Winter’s history as a spy for a secret government intelligence agency molded him into someone who believes evil must be stopped and injustices addressed, it sets up an inevitable showdown. Winter’s special “gift” and his modus operandi sets him apart from the Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan types of thriller and suspense yore, making him so distinctive and multi-dimensional that he is instantly an unforgettable character. Klavan makes this guilt-ridden former intelligence operative turned academic imminently plausible. My verdict, get it if you’re passionate about reading riveting and suspenseful thrillers you can’t put down. I read this one in one sitting.

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