Can memories be changed? It sounds far-fetched, but there is actually a growing body of scientific evidence showing how easy it is to manipulate memory. This article recounts a study where volunteers watched an episode of the TV show “24,” were fed false information about what they had seen, and later took a quiz about the program. The experiment demonstrated that under certain circumstances, memories can be selectively rewritten.
I’m pretty sure the scenario in The Night Bird, in which a deranged madman “programs” people to kill themselves and/or others by messing with their memories and implanting suggestions, is 99% implausible, but at least it’s grounded in reality. Dr. Frankie Stein (yes, she’s heard all the jokes about her name) treats patients who have developed crippling phobias as a result of traumatic experiences, such as a girl who grew terrified of water after a kayaking accident. Dr. Stein rewrites the bad memories and replaces them with different ones: the doctor “reconstructed a completely different version of the accident,” one in which her patient “didn’t topple under the weight of the current. She kept control… That was her reality now. That was what she remembered.”
But when someone with a grudge against Dr. Stein begins kidnapping patients she’s worked with and further manipulating their memories, causing them to snap when a particular song (Carole King’s “Nightbird”) is played, the doctor teams with San Francisco homicide detective Frost Easton to figure out who is carrying out this deadly vendetta.
You do have to suspend your disbelief a bit in order to fully enjoy this book—I could buy some of the memory stuff, but toward the end, the killer manages to plant his suggestions into someone who wasn’t even an official patient of Dr. Stein’s (she’d only gone in for a single consultation). Also, Frost is a pretty unconventional cop; he seems to have a lot of latitude to go out on his own to follow tips or hunches. Still, I really enjoyed reading The Night Bird. It’s a genuine page-turner, and even though Freeman lives in Minnesota, he’s obviously done his research on San Francisco; the book’s setting provides the reader with an amazing sense of place. Since I live in the Bay Area, I always like reading books that take place here, and Freeman writes about it so well that you’d swear he must be a local.
As a bonus, Frost has a cat named Shack who is one of the most unusual and delightful fictional pets I’ve encountered in quite some time. If you’re going to read a book about a diabolically brilliant serial killer, it helps to have a cute kitty (who is never in jeopardy at any time during the book—don’t worry, feline fans!) along to provide a few moments of levity.