Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Wall This Up

Entombed, Linda Fairstein, Read by Barbara Rosenblat, Recorded Books, LLC, 2005

One wonders, for our own sakes, what exactly are the psychological effects of the ever increasing entertainment value in the commissions of and investigations into brutal sex crimes. Murder itself, for its own sake, is dashed common, as are sex crimes. That the appetite for the merging of sex and violence, first in the crime itself, then in a fetishized coroner's laboratory setting, i.e., intellectualizing the brutal pleasures derived from the former, seems bottomless strikes a worrying chord.

Worse still the popularity, strange as it may be, of such a combo platter when dished up by the aesthetically deficient ex-DA Linda Fairstein. The author appears never to have striven to lift the material out of the gutter, to transcend the base substance with form sublime. No, Fairstein has stuck her snout into the mire and is content to wallow there with a series of books that, if to judge by her 2005 entry, Entombed, would bring down property values in the ghetto they are such trash.

And I say this as a devout in the church of James Ellroy, whose books are as viciously, profanely violent, filled with disgusting, charmless reprobates who, more often than not, bluntly offer up blind bigotry as their best feature. I say this not as a snob, nor a prude, nor a scold.

I say this because Entombed is so irredeemably bad, rotten, trifling, stupid, and hackneyed, because it is as predictable as gravity, and because the characters work from a plane of profound ignorance to one only slightly higher in stature. And, of course, in our modern world, that nets the author a spot on the bestseller list with every hobbled entry.

Let us just unpack all of this a little. In plotting, it is a contrivance beyond the cliché at this stage (though not yet to the point of being ironically clichéd) that any female investigator, no matter how far removed from the actual workings on the street in the real world of the criminal investigation, should she prove even slightly attractive, must find herself in mortal peril. That a woman author with thirty years experience in the prosecution of sex crimes, an author who no doubt had to daily overcome male bullshit regarding her proficiency and talent, an author who, in her rise to head of the sex crimes unit for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, was probably accused of sleeping her way to the top instead of rising through her skills, that such a woman should regularly have her protagonist, Alexandra Cooper, blindly fall into villainous traps only to be rescued by some muscle-bound male, is like a very great pissing on her own life story.

Let’s be quite clear here: I have no great understanding of the workings of criminal law. Yet my understanding of things runs like this: cops, mainly detectives, investigate the crimes; assistant district attorneys write briefs, prepare witnesses, take depositions, bring cases to trial. If an ADA for Manhattan has the kind of free time to regularly go on midnight raids and rides with the police force, she’s probably not that goddamned effective at her job because she’s not spending enough time cracking the law books and editing her closing arguments. I could be wrong on this, but something suggests to me that I’m not.

But these are crime thriller conventions, so let us not get all that hung up on them. Let us instead turn to how nothing in this novel, not one single scrap of happenstance is actually a red herring or pure chance. Everything, every single thing, including side cases unrelated to the main case, the possible return of one of Cooper’s long unsolved cases, the Silk Stocking Rapist, is there in order to point its finger so clearly in one direction.

When a girl who denies being a prostitute is questioned by Cooper, the credibility of the girl hinges on encoded information in her subway fare card, which can be analyzed for point of entry, point of departure, and the like. The entirety of this scene provides us no clearer glimpse of Cooper at work nor is it a breathtaking exercise in investigatory acumen. Instead, it is a giant beacon of foreshadowing so we know that when the rapist’s fare card is discovered, vital clues will be extracted.

Thus, also, when Cooper attends a law lecture at a building near her work, it just happens that that is when a body is discovered, having been boarded up in the walls decades ago. What luck. Our plucky ADA couldn’t just read about such a thing in the paper like the rest of mortal humanity; like God, she is everywhere at once. Just as on CSI and every other billionth television show, this coincidence allows Cooper to witness the investigation by the anthropological coroner, and allows us to learn about the body and the methodology of bone investigations. So thankful we are for such learning.

Which leads us to the far graver exhumation in the novel, the digging up of Edgar Allan Poe in order that Fairstein having pissed on her own history, may now turn toward an American icon for some of the same.

This Poe connection comes about because the walled up female corpse just happens to turn up in the structure known as the Poe Building due to the nineteenth century author’s having lived there before. Perhaps, our DA wonders, there is some connection to the woman who fought off an attack days before by the Silk Stocking Rapist; perhaps indeed when a second victim turns up, this one stabbed to death, but possessed of a fear, a fear of premature burial! BUM bum BUM!

The fellow who finds the second woman’s body just blabs nearly everything they need to know in their very first interview. Whew, that’s helpful. The ball is further advanced by her sister, the second interviewee, who claims the dead girl called her in fright about her “madman” ex-boyfriend who told her years ago that he had “buried a girl alive.” What a socko bunch of testimony straight up to the detectives and the ADA.

When a third body turns up, this one drowned and a man, Cooper and her detectives realize there’s something larger going on here than they’d previously realized. In the course of investigating, when the ADA hits redial on the dead man’s cellphone she gets the voice mail message for The Raven Society. What, she wonders, oh what what can it be? After a body turns up in Poe’s old house, after all sorts of little Poe clues pop up that she herself recognizes (having loved Poe when an undergraduate), when a dead man is connected to a group whose name evokes only Poe’s most well know verse, this dimbulb is slow to make the obvious damn connection.

Finally snapping to, Cooper questions the head of The Raven Society. In discussing via the walled up original corpse “The Cask of Amontillado,” this so-called Poe scholar not only relates all the garish romanticized false tales of Poe’s life, things a true lover of Poe should be familiar with and have debunked especially an academic who heads up a Poe foundation, but he claims that the narrator of that revenge story “wanted to get his victim intoxicated enough to pass out but then have him come around in time to see that the last bricks were about to seal him in forever.” Consider instead the actual scene:

In an instant he [the victim] had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was too much astounded to resist.

Nice scholarly work, if you can get it, incorrectly summarizing one of Poe’s most famous tales. One needn’t be overly schooled to be an expert, it seems.

But hell, this is true for nearly everyone in the book. The District Attorney, Bataglia, seems unaware (in 2005!) how DNA evidence works, especially odd considering we’re informed that he’s described as a man who likes to be on the cutting edge, trying new things, a “detail man.” When in the same conversation he asks why the perp can’t be caught by questioning guys on the street using five dollar bribes to loosen lips, you have to ask yourself what the fuck. Do five dollar bribes even work on children any more?

Perhaps Fairstein has so little respect for so-called experts or so-called facts because she clearly has so little respect for her readers. She writes the kind of boneheaded scenes in which quite obvious bits of information are simply and bluntly delivered to the reader in case they missed it. When Cooper interviews a high school girl whose boyfriend got her pregnant then tried to procure her an abortion from his “uncle,” supposedly a doctor, the girl replies to prompting questions from Cooper that she’d gotten undressed, that there’d been no nurse in the room with her and the doc, and that she’d never had a gynecological exam previously.

“The fact that it was the first time the girl was going through the procedure made it impossible for her to know what the standard practice should be in such exams. It was the perfect moment for someone to take advantage of her.”

Just in case you didn’t add that little sum up all by your wittle selvsies.

And since we’re dullards, we readers, large dollops of information have to be ladled onto our brains lest we not grasp the dynamics at play. A dinner between Cooper and a detective named Chapman at an Italian restaurant features long business about Chapman’s girlfriend who recently got over cancer, then Cooper’s painful break-up from a previous novel. This “Getting To Know You” moment should clarify to us that these are two wounded people, who despite their flirty banter, are too cagey to ever fall for each other. And in case we don’t get that subtext, we are treated to some six thousand minor characters who make some suggestion along the two of them hooking up. Subtle!

The climax to all this silliness involves the person you least expect as well as a night time chase of Cooper by the Poe obsessed killer where improbably large bats with four foot wingspans play a role, as does the threat of premature internment, a lengthy monologue confession by the killer helpfully tidying up any gray areas, and, the novel’s one true surprise, Cooper saving her own life. This is bookended, as if an afterthought, by the capture of the real Silk Stocking Rapist in the last pages. All in a day’s work, I guess.

In the end, one turns to Poe where he wrote “the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” That there are no discernibly beautiful dead women in this book might indicate something to Cooper, though she probably doesn’t know enough Poe to bother traducing the poor fellow in this fashion. If there be crime, this be it. That Fairstein is almost uniquely situated to capitalize handsomely on our culture’s current fascination with the sexy deaths of beautiful women is an irony that Poe, who died penniless and alone, might laugh at even from beyond the grave.

Barbara Rosenblat is the only saving grace this book really contains. She is an entertaining reader, does the various voices well including an African man, an African-American cop, a Bronx-raised male cop, a southern man, among others. She’s wasted, of course, on material this threadbare, though she seems to specialize in this kind of material,she seems to have her sights set a little higher usually.

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