A Man Of Parts: John Maxim’s Abel Baker Charlie
Published in 1983 by Houghton Mifflin, and then re-released in 2001 by Avon, John Maxim’s Abel Baker Charlie seems to be effectively out of print. There does seem to be a Kindle version available, but skimming the sample on Amazon shows that it’s a quick and dirty OCR conversion, with multiple formatting errors in the first few pages. The publisher is listed as Amazon Digital Services LLC. Oddly enough, the Kindle version does not link to used paperbacks, but if you search for the paperback separately you can find it from a number of used booksellers.
This book means a lot to me, and to explain why I’ll have to get a little personal. You see, I have this mental illness. It’s currently listed in the DMS IV as “dissociative identity disorder”, before this edition it used to be listed as “multiple personality disorder.”
I don’t talk about it a lot because it’s one of those things that sounds way more exciting and exotic than it really is. Seriously, it’s one of the most boring ways to be crazy.
Nonetheless, the concept of multiple personalities is an enduring one in speculative fiction. Most of the time, though, the authors screw it up by trying to construct elaborate twists where it turns out that the murderer and the detective are really the same person and don’t know it or something equally absurd.
Abel Baker Charlie gets it right. The main character, Jared Baker, suffers a traumatic assault on his family. During the attack he has a moment of dissociation, feeling like a spectator while his body fought back with a ruthless efficiency.
As an alternative to prison, Baker is given over to the care of the behaviorist Dr. Sonnenberg (one of the most chillingly amoral characters I’ve run across). Instead of trying to integrate the dissociated parts of Jared Baker’s mind, Sonnenberg works to increase the schism. The result is three distinct personalities—Abel, a vicious killer with the instincts of a predator, Baker, who is scarred by his experiences but basically the same man that he was, and Charlie, a gentle, childlike entity who can read minds.
And then things get complicated. This novel is, essentially, an unwilling spy thriller along the lines of The Man Who Knew Too Much or North By Northwest. Baker only wants to somehow return to his ordinary life, the life he had before the assault. Unfortunately, what Sonnenberg has done to him makes him very valuable. There are a number of groups that want to find him, to control and use him, and others who want him dead.
Along the way (and it is fairly twisty way, with some unexpected switchbacks) Maxim raises some uncomfortable questions.
Who are we, really? Are we what we think we are, and if so, does who we are change if we start to think we are someone else? Who takes the responsibility for what we become—who we used to be, or who we have turned into? Can someone change us into something else against our will? Against whose will, exactly?
Maxim doesn’t try to answer any of these questions, mind you. This is not a book that preaches or moralizes. Instead it just raises the questions and leaves them hanging, for the reader to duck or wrestle with according to personal taste.
Nonetheless, Abel Baker Charlie doesn’t feel cluttered. While there are some philosophical digressions (Dr. Sonnenberg, in true mad genius style, tends to monologue) there are smoothly integrated into the prose and the action keeps rolling along. You can easily enjoy this novel as an action thriller without stopping to consider the questions of identity that it raises.
Be advised, though, they may come back to haunt you.
Do any of us really know who we are?
Misha Burnett is the author of Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, The Worms Of Heaven, and Gingerbread Wolves, modern fantasy novels collectively known as The Book Of Lost Doors.