The first few pages of Eli Gottlieb's third novel, "The Face Thief," are frightfully good: a woman, later identified as Margot, falls down the stairs, life not so much flashing before her eyes as spooling out in slow motion, mingling with her bone-splintering reality and things she cannot be sure are really there.
And so we're off on what promises to be a narrative of psychological suspense: Margot may have been pushed down the stairs, but by whom, and why? The prime suspects are John Potash, defrauded of his life's savings by Margot, and Lawrence Billings, whose "Physique of Finance" seminars Margot attended. The cop on the case is Dan France, who visits Margot as she recovers in the hospital.
Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to its initial promise, for two main reasons. First, for a psychological study, the main characters are too flat, motivated by greed for various combinations of love and money - characters we've seen before. The lack of originality in Margot is particularly disappointing, as she reads like a worn-out caricature whose sexual proclivities - sleeping around without enjoyment, using sex as a means to an end - are a major factor in her manipulative and false nature, a mark of her deficient character. There is room in the novel to explore that the same may be true of the two main male characters, possibly all three, but it's an opportunity not taken.
Second, there's very little suspense. While the ultimate whodunit may be a surprise (but the narrative's trajectory and the dearth of suspects suggests the mystery is not the point), there's hardly any tension. We witness Margot's cons in flashbacks, which drive the story forward, though we know or can guess how it will turn out. As for Margot, she spends most of the book in a recovery haze, which does little to justify the feelings Dan France seems to have for her; furthermore, France's character is too underdeveloped for this to make any sense.
I wanted to like this book, and did appreciate several parts: Lawrence's marriage and how he feels about the woman he's spent most of his adult life with are particularly well done. Gottlieb's writing is strong; sadly his subject matter is not, and "The Face Thief" is less than the sum of its parts.