It’s always interesting when an author is actually an expert in a completely different skill, such as a doctor or nurse writing a book about a hospital, or a police office about a crime. In the case of Don’t Look Down by David Laing Dawson, it’s a forensic psychiatrist writing about four men that could very easily have been reflections of his own clients. His four primary characters are all serving time in a secure psychiatry ward as roommates, and they have their separate reasons and crimes to consider.
Frank just finished a prison sentence for manslaughter; he is a scary sociopath with a brutal outlook on life. David is a young man plagued with schizophrenia who likes to keep his hair wet and may have had something to do with the death of a woman named Sal. Henry is an 81 year old man with a memory problem and in trouble for mercy killing his long-time girlfriend. Finally, there is Joseph, a paranoid man who was convinced his wife was sleeping with everyone around him and started to savagely beat her for it. How these men manage to live somewhat harmoniously together is anyone’s guess, but I guess they have bigger things to worry about then getting along with a roommate!
The main character is more than likely Henry, who is the first person introduced in the short book (174 pages) and the last character to speak. He’s certainly an interesting study as a very old man who can barely remember his name half of the time, let alone how to present his case in court. After watching one lover die from a wasting disease, he took it upon himself to end his second lover’s illness with a bullet to the head. The most interesting of them, however, seems to be the confused and genuinely crazy David.
His bizarre story about Sally and his resentful relationship toward sex and intimacy is a curious one, and his chapters seem to flow the best in the book. Specifically, the chapters in which he has a first person narrative and discussion with the doctor assigned to him. There is also an excellent dialogue-only chapter with Joseph manically insisting that his wife slept with everyone, including her priest. The solid intuitive flow of those chapters make the stilted third person narrative of the others somewhat boring in comparison.
Clearly Dawson has seen some pretty intriguing cases in his time as a forensic psychiatrist, and it’s great to see them translated to paper. Don’t Look Down is an easy read, short and to the point, and while you may not really like or connect to the characters, their stories will keep you engaged. The purpose does not seem to carry sympathy for the characters — although occasionally you do despite your reservations — but rather to understand the minds of people society might deem crazy. There were a few attempts at humor and odd brotherhood in the story, but they rang somewhat false, and the story only really worked when it was delving into the bizarre minds of the individuals and how they came to be locked up for violence and murder.
This book will likely appeal to those who are interested in psychiatry or the mental aspect of criminals, and since it was written by an expert in the field, it feels authentic from beginning to end. It’s not a comfortable book to read, but it is thought-provoking.