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by William Landay
Delacorte Press, September 2003
384 pages
ISBN: 0385336144

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There's not much crime to speak of in the small town of Versailles (Ver-SALES), Maine. The chief of police, Ben Truman, is only 24 years old. He had been studying for his doctorate in history and returned home when his mother developed Alzheimer's. He eventually inherited the police chief job from his father. When Ben discovers the decomposing body of a prominent prosecutor from the Boston district attorney's office in a local cabin, life changes dramatically.

Ben has never had to investigate anything more serious than the occasional case of vandalism. Even as he tries to assess the crime scene, he is blundering about and missing key pieces of evidence, which is pointed out to him by a retired homicide detective by the name of John Kelly. Although the case has been taken over by the Boston police, Ben feels that since this murder occurred on his home turf, he should be a part of the investigation. They just barely tolerate his intervention, keeping him at the edges of the case. But Ben made one smart move by deputizing Kelly, and he helps steer Ben through the investigation.

The dead prosecutor had been looking at some gangland activity in the Mission Flats area of Boston. Mission Flats is a hotbed of drug dealing, and the police quickly name Harold Braxton, drug runner and head of the Mission Posse, as the killer. As the hunt for Braxton broadens, the trail leads to two unsolved cases from years before. Sometimes working with the men of the Boston department and sometimes against them, Ben doggedly pursues the leads. It's a compelling and complex investigation which leads to a resolution that is like a punch to the gut, one of the most surprisingly effective conclusions I've seen in a crime novel.

The book is beautifully written, with an involving plot and textured characterization. All of the character portrayals are multi-layered; but unfortunately, I found a lot of inconsistency in the characters throughout the book. For example, Ben is depicted as being quite na´ve, almost like a hayseed, and then expresses observations about life that sound like those of a much more seasoned and mature man. The prime suspect, Harold Braxton, is presented as the devil's agent and moves to something far more noble than would be supported in his role of gang leader.

After I finished reading the book and starting analyzing my reaction to it, the strangest thing happened. I was originally extremely impressed with this debut novel and had assigned it a rating of 4.5 on a 5.0 scale. But something kept nagging at me, the feeling that I had been taken for a ride. I finally realized that I felt deceived by the narrator.

The book is told from the point of view of Ben. I'm sure you've heard of the concept of the 'unreliable narrator', where you cannot trust what the narrator is telling you because he has colored it from his own viewpoint and is not necessarily presenting information objectively.

However, in this case Landay didn't play fair at all in how Ben narrated the story. He deliberately didn't tell the truth about what he saw and knew and left out vitally important details. The author didn't seem to choose this approach to advance the book, but rather to misguide the reader and build a totally 'surprising' ending. It's true that I was surprised; but upon reflection, I felt cheated as well. My rating of the book moved from 4.5 to 2.5. Landay has the raw talent, but the execution was flawed.

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, March 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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