When general practitioner Benjamin Gilmer joins a small clinic in West Virginia, he learns his (unrelated) predecessor was also named Dr. Gilmer, which is surprising. He also learns the other Dr. Gilmer left because he was sentenced to life in prison after strangling his father, cutting off his fingertips and abandoning him by the side of a road. Which is even more surprising.

At the end of his debut book, Benjamin confesses he's not a very good writer (which is probably the place to make that confession, if you must) and he does have a tendency to repeat himself but, even if he's no great stylist, his writing is lucid and compassionate. He benefits from a spellbinding story, which emerges from his curiosity about what led the beloved Dr. Vince Gilmer to murder.

His surprising investigation results in a "This American Life" feature, a diagnosis, multiple bids for clemency and a plea to heal this country's mental health and justice problems.

Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune writer.

The Other Dr. Gilmer

By: Benjamin Gilmer.

Publisher: Ballantine, 296 pages, $28.