Before there was post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, there was shell shock. Unlike the way that the current term brings to mind wounded veterans reliving moments from their darkest times at war, “shell shock” was a term used to loosely define something that wasn’t well understood, and carried an even more pronounced stigma than PTSD.
In Shell Shock: A Gus Conrad Thriller, psychiatrist and author Steve Stahl takes an acute look at shell shock and modern day PTSD from a surprising platform — a fictional thriller.
The book follows the journey of psychiatrist Gus Conrad, a man accused of murdering a soldier with PTSD who was one of his own patients, as he tries to clear his name. His efforts to prove his innocence draw him into a nefarious secret — a plan to exterminate soldiers who are suffering from shell shock/PTSD that traces back to the first World War.
The American death squad, known as The Patrons of Perseus, operates on the premise of celebrating and encouraging heroism and eliminating cowardice — and, due to a lack of knowledge, eliminating those with shell shock/PTSD.
Conrad spends the remainder of the novel balancing self-preservation and a crusade-esque desire to expose The Patrons of Perseus and change the face of military psychiatry in the process.
While it carries a tremendous amount of valuable and gut-wrenching information about the realities of PTSD — both in recent years and when it was known as shell shock — the book is unable to strike a balance between being a weighty, content-driven textbook and a plot-driven thriller. Stahl proves his expertise on the subject by interlacing treatment specifics for those with shell shock/PTSD, using examples from World War I to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but doing so without any real concrete suggestion. Despite the clinical content, the text focused heavily on the social stigma of PTSD and how that plays out from the military perspective.
Although it is a heavyweight when it comes to information, the book suffers when it comes to literary quality. The editing is poor, demonstrated by disjointed sentences, incomplete ideas, and short and choppy chapters that move the reader from one country and one era to another in less than two pages before tossing them back again.
As a reader, this left me trying to catch up and follow the path of the story with little success. The book ends without resolution or completion, leaving the impression that the author wanted to finish the story in a sequel or that he was unsure of how to wrap this installment up. I found the writing style to be simplistic and, at times, elementary. While not a deal breaker, that does detract and distract from the gravity of the topic, and also doesn’t fit the tone. Again, this speaks more to the editing than to the content, but it effects the overall product just the same.
Still, the actual goal of the novel is genius. By demonstrating how the military responds to PTSD/shell shock, it sparks dialogue about not only the best practices of treating the condition from the psychiatric perspective, but also of the inner workings of the military that could be adjusted to better support (and in this case, not murder) soldiers suffering from PTSD after deployment. But again, although the concept is compelling and intrigued me, someone who has recovered from trauma-induced PTSD, it falls flat. I found myself wanting a solution, a suggestion, an answer, but received none as I turned to the last page.
While I didn’t appreciate the merging of the textbook-like content and fictional thriller components, the two on their own are both stellar and effective. The reality of what soldiers go through with PTSD is highlighted accurately, including the differences between World War I veterans and vets from more recent conflicts.
My impression of the book’s overall goal is to communicate the stark realities of shell shock/PTSD in a fictional, thrilling, and page-turning package, wrapped in a layer of psychiatric foundational knowledge. The motivation behind this project and the amount of information it conveys is to be applauded; in this sense, it hits the mark. The plot build-up works up to a point — and then the ending disappoints.
I would recommend reading this book with two different sets of glasses on: one for a thrilling fiction novel about a psychiatrist who exposes a plot to kill American soldiers suffering from PTSD, and another pair for a realistic examination of the psychiatric implications and responses to PTSD in the military. By approaching the book as one or the other, it becomes a much stronger read.
Shell Shock: A Gus Conrad Thriller
Harley House Press, June 2015
Paperback, 448 pages