Thursday, March 16, 2006

Murder at the Keyboard, Book Store, Library, Remainder Bin

Murder at The Washington Tribune, by Margaret Truman, Read by Dick Hill, Brilliance Audio, 2005

See, now maybe it's just me, but if I had an older brother who was committed to a mental hospital years ago when we were children for strangling a fourteen year old girl next door, that would be the first thing I would think of if two young women, one who worked with me, were strangled to death in the city in which I lived. I wouldn't necessarily think that my brother had escaped or that he had done it, but it would be, oh, let’s say on my mind. Egotistically, I imagine it would be on any rational human being's.

If later I discovered said brother had been recently released from the mental hospital, the math would be even more immediately easier. And if I was a well-respected journalist, what excuse would I have? The scenario would be throbbing in my head morning, noon, and night. Not so crack crime reporter Joe Wilcox, the hero of Margaret Truman’s latest “Capitol Crimes” “mystery,” Murder at The Washington Tribune, who is apparently a fucking moron.

I suppose it's probably natural not to want to suspect your family members of being psychotic killers, even if, you know, they are. I mean, who wants to admit to that, have that on their conscience? Add to the fact that the two victims were young beautiful journalists and Joe's daughter is a young, beautiful journalist, and it's just too much to take. Doesn’t it strike anyone as exceedingly peculiar that Joe doesn't actually suspect his brother Michael immediately when he admits to working for a delivery company and was actually in the Tribune building on the night the first murder took place?

For the cherry on top, Michael actually even tells him that he’s followed Joe when he left work, that he's spied on Joe’s wife and daughter, and Joe’s only vaguely upset by all this. He does seem like a rather incautious fellow. So incautious that he fabricates a quote from police headquarter that the crimes are the work of a serial killer (throwing DC into a panic), then later types letters to himself from said serial killer on his brother’s typewriter while Michael’s out working.

The exact motive for this last act is strained and difficult to grasp. Joe’s not actually trying to frame Michael; he’s really just in it for the attention of having a big story all to himself, but why involve his brother who, frankly, is the perfect patsy? I don’t know, and I rather suspect Truman doesn’t either. It likewise seems queer beyond all comprehension that not one single person — and I do mean not one — ever considers the possibility of the “serial killer letter” being a hoax. Not Joe’s editor, not the cops, no one, yet it’s practically Police 101 that any major unsolved crime with media attention will dredge up cranks willing to confess.

To add to all this ridiculousness, we have Joe’s friendship with detective Edith Vargas-Swayzee, a spicy Latina with whom we are constantly, pointlessly reminded Joe had one night of long-remembered and long-somewhat-regretted marital infidelity. Edith is, of course, investigating the strangled journalists, as is Joe’s daughter, hot and upcoming celebrity news talking head Roberta Wilcox.

Part of what makes this novel so damn tedious is the three competing teams investigating the murders and how interconnected they all are. Joe develops a theory that it might be a serial killer; he shares his serial killer scenario with Edith on the police force; when Roberta calls Joe at home, he mentions to her that it might be a serial killer; when Edith meets with her task force they talk about whether or not it's a serial killer; when Roberta sits in on a meeting with her network’s anchor talking about which way the news story will run, the journalist team debates whether or not it's a serial killer; later that night Joe calls up Edith at home to let her know that he and his editorial staff have decided to slant the two murders as one serial killer story; she tells him some TV journalists had been calling asking if the two murders were the work of a serial killer; reporters report talk of there being a serial killer; police spokesperson denies any truth to serial killer talk. It's all so goddamned repetitive it makes you want to scream, let's get this fucking tale a'movin'!

Because I really loathed this book and because I’m a jerk, I’m going to spoil the mystery. It’s not actually a serial killer. The solution to the mystery is so banal it doesn’t bother going into, but this fact is the one thing about the book I liked. Ostensibly seeming to be about a serial killer, the novel is about media obsession with serial killers. Anyone who’s read any of my thriller reviews knows that I believe serial killers are too goddamned overexposed to be anything more than a hackneyed cliché with which lazy writers fill novels. Why can’t the goddamned butler do it anymore?

Everyone in the book, and I do mean everyone is an idiot or written as though they were. Hot shot journalists who don’t or can’t put two and two together are a dime a dozen in the real world so who the hell wants to read about them? When suspicions start to swirl around Michael, Roberta casually begins accepting invitations to go to his apartment all by herself for dinner and to hear his strumming on the guitar. This, even after she knows of his history.

Then when she’s over at his apartment, Roberta sees his manuscript for Michael’s novel. Something strikes her as peculiar about it, the pages look vaguely-ish familiar to her. Let me clue her in. In 2005, how often do you see typewritten pages from an actual clackety clack clack typewriter? The generalized answer is: Fucking Never. With computers and printers so ubiquitous, anyone would recall a typewritten page rather clearly, especially after one was sent to your father from a serial killer and was reproduced in his paper. Please, you fucking halfwits, fucking please.

Truman's prose style is prone to the obvious word-choice bordering on the cliche at all times. When thinking of the two dead women, Joe reflects that they had promising lives and careers (and at this point I thought the next words a beat before the narrator read them) snuffed out prematurely. The elements of the novel that are related more to the change in how the media works, in the competition between the young turks and the old guard, all of this is interesting and at times compelling, the novel actually getting a little spark lit under it, but Truman has to gum up the works with a clunky mystery that goes nowhere.

The reader, Dick Hill, manages to give each character little verbal tics apart from just changing his vocal tones. He adds in a great deal of extra-textual coughs, grunts, stammers, chuckles, arrhythmic pauses, sniffles, etc. even in the narrative. It's a testament to his abilities that even when you don't rather like Joe Wilcox, his office enemy, the young up and comer Gene Hawthorne, through snide tone and bored responses, is even more repugnant. Hill was the one bright spot in this whole mess.

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