Review: The Placebo Effect, by David Rotenberg

placebo>>Published: February 2012

>>Finally got around to it: March 2013

“I told him, ‘It doesn’t work on people I care about or family.’”

Decker had thought at the time about telling his father about the lines in his head—how they aligned when he heard a truth—then decided against it, as he decided against telling the southern girl across the table from him.

“My father’s eyes widened then he said, ‘I want you downstairs next Thursday night.’

“I protested, ‘But you and your friends are way better pool players than—’

“‘I know,’ he said.

“‘But I’m not good enough to play with—’

“‘No you aren’t, but come down and play that lying trick of yours.’

“I really didn’t want to do it, but I did. After their game ended and the men left, my father asked me what statements made by his friends were truthful. I identified the very few truths spoken that night, then added, ‘And Mr. Walsh pocketed a twenty that belonged to you.’

“‘You saw that too?”


“My father nodded slowly. ‘This is pretty interesting, don’t you think?’ he said.

“But I really didn’t find it interesting. I found it scary and isolating. And I didn’t like the way my father looked at me—like I had confirmed in his mind that I really was a freak. So I stopped using it.”


Decker Roberts is a synaesthete. Not one of those “silly” synaesthetes who can smell words or see colours and shapes in music (of which I am actually the latter), but an actual benefit to society and the protection of life and liberty. Through some crossed wiring in his brain he is able to tell, with incredible precision, when someone is telling the truth. Sometimes, that is. When there are no possible outstanding factors that might give someone reason to fib. Oh, and that’s another thing: he can’t tell when someone’s lying, only when they’re not being entirely truthful. Which is a round about way of saying that though Decker is in possession of a unique ability, it comes a pre-packaged laundry list of ways it can be circumvented. It’s a little like getting a mobile phone that only works when you’re standing in one specific spot at a certain time of day.

In the years since his wife’s death from ALS, Decker has forged a side-business to take advantage of his particular set of skills. On paper he teaches acting courses and has a past in the Broadway theatre scene. Off the record, however, he is available on a case-by-case basis for jobs requiring him to tell whether or not someone—usually an employee of a business with too much money to burn—is being truthful. When not jetting around North America on one-night-only jobs, Decker makes his home in Toronto, in an area of the city known as the Junction, where he pines for slivers of knowledge as to the wellbeing and whereabouts of his estranged son, Seth, who abandoned Decker years earlier for reasons not explained in this book.

The plot of The Placebo Effect, the first in a trilogy of books, revolves around two primary elements: the NSA’s tracking of known synaesthetes (not unlike the mutant Registration program from X-Men, minus the towering, thirty-foot-tall sentinels); and Henry-Clay Yolles of Yolles pharmaceuticals orchestrating a scam to sell his company’s medication for maximum profit using a carefully calculated ratio of placebos to actual medicine. The ratio itself was calculated beyond a shadow of a doubt by another synaesthete—the tragically simple Mike Shedloski (aka the Ratio Man). Henry-Clay is aware of Decker Roberts and his special skill and puts him to the test—supposedly to see whether or not he can be used as an asset. But when Mike the Ratio Man threatens to reveal Yolles Pharmaceuticals’ underhanded behaviour, Henry-Clay deems both him and Decker as threats to be quickly discarded.

There are a great many more characters and plot elements to the story—too many, in fact, given how little time is spent developing each character. I had several problems with The Placebo Effect, chief among them that it’s simply not very well written, plotted, or paced. The characters themselves are two-dimensional cut-outs. They have back-stories, sure—like Crazy Eddie attempting to regain custody of his daughter, or the mostly-untold history between Seth and Decker—but there is so much jumping around scene to scene, and often with only single paragraphs dedicated to one time or place before moving onto the next, that it is almost impossible to get any sort of emotional or psychological feel for any of the characters. The structure is spastic in how quickly it moves between people and places, and as such there is no room for the narrative or the characters to breathe, to be anything to one another but basic screenplay devices. And when Rotenberg does attempt to give a little depth via comparisons or interests, it is still handed in a frustratingly surface-level manner (eg: using albums, films, and TV shows to illustrate character traits, but not explaining how or what the relation is—such as referencing one’s dislike of The Fountainhead without giving context as to why). And when all is said and done, no actual depth has been added through these plentiful asides, and the reader is left perpetually wanting more—and not at all in a constructive I-can’t-wait-for-the-sequel manner.

Beyond these issues, I found the manner in which topics related to race were handled to be insensitive and heavy-handed, the amount of information which is teased but deliberately held back for future installments to be overwhelmingly distracting (and by holding so much of it back, especially with respect to Seth and Decker’s relationship, it actually harms are ability to take an interest in either one of their lives), and the level of detail—especially with respect to the language and imagery used to explain Decker’s particular synaesthesia—to be startlingly sparse and illustrating a surprising deficit of imagination.

Most egregious though is discerning Yolles’ motivation, especially with respect to his targeting of Decker. At the end of the book I’m left seeing this as a shot-first scenario, where it is Yolles’ fear and lack of understanding about Decker that causes him to go after him in the first place. Had he just left it alone and not done a thing, or waited to see if someone like Decker would actually ever be a threat in the first place, then it might have made sense to go after him. As it stands, the plot of The Placebo Effect feels as if it hinges entirely on Yolles making an incredibly stupid error in judgement, drawing Decker into a plot that would have otherwise passed him by. And all this without touching on NSA Special Agent Yslan Hicks, who vacillates so jarringly between intrigue and being a force of unnecessary oppression and antagonism that by the end I’d lost interest in discovering who she was beneath the surface.

I have a lot more I’d like to say (like how ridiculously simple it is for Yolles to gain Mike’s passwords to the online synaesthete community) but the long and short of it is that The Placebo Effect did not work for me on any level. I like the basic idea of employing synaesthetes in unconventional ways, but at no point does Decker’s skill—or any of the synaesthetic skills presented—feel necessary to the goings on in this book. In the end, too many characters and questions are left hanging for the second book in the series, while not enough has been given for me to know why I should want to read on.


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