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Originally published Friday, March 14, 2014 at 6:16 AM

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‘A Circle of Wives’: three wives, one murder

In “A Circle of Wives,” Alice LaPlante expertly interweaves the stories of the three wives of a plastic surgeon, who meet after the surgeon is murdered. LaPlante appears Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co. and Wednesday at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Alice LaPlante

The author of “A Circle of Wives” will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 18, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600, She will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 19, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E. Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333,

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A plastic surgeon is dead in a hotel room near his home. Some evidence indicates a coronary, but there’s also a serious head injury. Did he have a heart attack and hit his head on furniture? Or did something more sinister occur?

So far, a pretty generic setup for a murder mystery. But things quickly get interesting in Alice LaPlante’s surprising, swift and sure-footed “A Circle of Wives” (Atlantic Monthly, 325 pp., $25).

John Taylor was a respected Bay Area physician. He was noted for his personal charisma, a surgical practice that made him wealthy and his devotion to pro bono work that changed the lives of poor and severely disfigured patients.

But this exemplary man had a secret: Three wives. Simultaneously.

Taylor expertly juggled his three households for years, explaining his frequent absences by mentioning conferences or work-related trips.

Only one of the wives knew about the others. That is, the others didn’t until they meet at his memorial service. The first woman he married — the one who knew about the others — has arranged for all three to encounter one another.

Deborah, the first wife, lives in Palo Alto. She’s a force of nature — mean-spirited, domineering and grasping. Not to mention terrifyingly manipulative. She was responsible for setting up the second and third marriages as a way of keeping Taylor on a short leash — if she knew about the others, she reasoned, she’d be able to keep him from wandering further for female companionship.

The second wife is MJ, a gentle ex-hippie in Los Gatos who works as an accountant and is devoted to her house and lush garden. And then there’s Helen, a cool and disciplined pediatric oncologist in Los Angeles.

There’s a fourth woman observing this curious state of affairs: Samantha Adams, known as Sam. (Don’t bother remarking on her name; she’s heard all the jokes.) Sam is a young Palo Alto detective who catches the case and sets out to uncover Taylor’s secrets and the reasons behind his death.

“A Circle of Wives” is told in turn by all four women, slowly unveiling the story from multiple viewpoints in overlapping segments. Author LaPlante does a fine job of giving each wife a distinctive voice and character — the reader is never confused about who’s talking — and in keeping the plot moving briskly along.

In short order, Detective Adams confirms that the physician’s death was indeed murder. The list of suspects narrows to just a handful: First and foremost the wives, of course. Each may have a reason to kill Taylor.

But so do his business partners, who resent the doctor taking revenue away to do his pro bono work. And so does MJ’s brother, a ne’er-do-well who borrowed significant sums over the years from Taylor, then lost the money in harebrained business schemes. LaPlante wisely keeps the pool of suspects small, keeping the story spare and tightly wound.

LaPlante, who teaches creative writing at Stanford and San Francisco State, has taken an intriguing premise and, having hooked the reader, delivers an equally intriguing book.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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