Tag Archives: capital punishment

Reeling in the Years

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed.   In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun.   I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.

Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot.   There are two protagonists.   There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution.   Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls.   Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone.   Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop.   The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.

Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller.   It is interesting enough, but just enough.

Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman.   When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort.   Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life:  “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory.   It was like a story she knew about someone else.”

A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy.   That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom.   Something key is missing here as the author admits:  “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”

Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution.   The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her.   Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.

A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete.   The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.

In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success.   However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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An Unfocused Journey

The Autobiography of an Execution (Twelve, 288 pages, $24.99)

“Outside the prison gates on Fridays, the parking lot is like a carnival.   Vans and RVs and pickup trucks with campers fill the visitor spaces.”

David R. Dow’s strangely titled book is part journal of his legal defense work in death penalty cases, and part memoir of his personal life with his wife and son (he was late to marry).   Unfortunately, it never quite decides what it want to be so it offers a not-so-fascinating look at both aspects of his life.   There also seem to be two characters vying for attention here:  Dow the brass knuckled street fighting gritty attorney and Dow the gentle family man.   The one thing that is obvious is that Dow has an immense ego, something that he quotes his wife as commenting upon.   (Think about the ego is takes for someone to include a quote from a loved one who has said that he has an outsized ego.)

Then there’s the writing style.   Dow admits that he’s not an accomplished writer and the style of Execution might be categorized as without style.   Dow bounces around in a quirky fashion moving from tense legal cases to family matters, and back again, without any apparent map or hint of structure.   The plus side to this stream of consciousness approach is that it does not require a lot of attention from the reader as Dow does not stick to any one topic for very long.

This is an airplane ride book, which offers far less substance on the death penalty debate than a prospective purchaser might expect.  

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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