Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some crime novels are as much literary novels as they are the stories of crimes and investigations. Such novels cross genre lines, so they’re a little harder to put into categories. Still, they can be interesting ways to tell a crime story. As an example, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead.
The real action in the story begins with the death of 70-year-old Emma Kost O’Neal, owner of the O’Neal mortuary. Mrs. O’Neal died a wealthy woman, so there’s quite a lot of money, especially insurance money, at stake. Since the insurance company won’t pay out if the death was a suicide, manner of death becomes all important here.
It’s soon clear that the Mrs. O’Neal didn’t die of natural causes. In fact, evidence shows that she was asphyxiated. The main question for the insurance company is: was this death a suicide or a murder? There are plenty of people with a stake in the outcome of the investigation, and some of them are powerful. So Officer David Talmadge and Detective Mark Moraski are under a great deal of pressure. Still, they try to be fair and get at the truth.
If the victim was murdered, there are several suspects. There’s her grand-niece, Emmanuelle ‘Manny’ Whitman, who was in the house when the body was discovered, and who may inherit everything. And there’s Matthew Wyman, who discovered the body. There’s also the possibility that Robert ‘Bobby’ Sullivan, who worked for the O’Neal family for years, might have been involved.
The most likely suspect is Wyman, who’s always been mentally very fragile, anyway. In fact, at one point, he’s even committed to a mental institution. He could have had a motive, since he was involved with Manny, and there’s other evidence against him. Moraski isn’t entirely convinced that Wyman’s the killer, but he has to go where the evidence leads.
As the investigation goes on, it seems increasingly clear that everyone will be happiest if Wyman is arrested and the case is closed. But is he being framed? And if so, by whom? What’s strange, too, is that he doesn’t protest unduly against his arrest or the assumption he’s guilty. Why would he go along with a plot to frame him? In the end, and after many layers of lies, half-truths and secrets are peeled away, we learn the truth about Mrs. O’Neal’s death.
This is a crime novel in the sense that there’s an unnatural death, an investigation, witnesses and so on. But it is also a literary novel. So we learn a great deal about the various characters who play important roles. One of the major characters is Wyman, a brilliant artist with a fine mind. He’s not in good mental health, though, and depends on medication. Still, there’s a strong argument that he’s as sane as anyone, and a lot saner than the many other characters who either won’t or can’t face the truth about their lives. We follow the story partly from his perspective, and from that of his older brother, Brian. There’s a sub-plot, too, concerning their family.
Other parts of the story are told from other points of view, including Moraski’s, Talmadge’s, Manny Whitman’s, and a few others. Readers who dislike multiple points of view will notice this. Hogan uses this approach to add character development and to provide backstory.
The story begins with Mrs. O’Neal’s death, but it’s not a sequential story. Rather, it tells the story from different perspectives, as if through different lenses. And these perspectives shift back and forth in time as we learn about the different characters, and find out their personal histories and relationships to each other. Each chapter is labelled with the perspective being shared, but readers who prefer a linear, chronological story will notice this approach to telling the story. Readers who enjoy very in-depth character studies will appreciate this.
The story is told in the present tense, with flashbacks being told in past tense. So we learn not just what happened to Mrs. O’Neal, but what led to it, how all of the characters are interconnected, and so on. Readers who prefer their stories to be told only in one or the other tense will notice this.
Although this is a literary novel, it is also, as I mentioned, a crime novel. So, although this is not a very fast-paced novel, there are some twists and turns in the plot as the various lies and half-truths are revealed for what they are. Few of the characters are really what they seem to be; and, in the end, there’s a hint of noir as readers learn how much deception and self-deception there’s been.
That suggestion of noir is also apparent in the story behind the murder. It’s an unhappy story, and the resolution doesn’t make anything any better, really. Those who prefer to see their ‘bad guys’ led away in handcuffs will notice this. Like some other noir novels, this one has a theme of corruption and of people who will do whatever’s necessary either to get ahead or to stay out of the way of those who want to.
The story takes place in fictional Hartford and West Hartford, Massachusetts, and Hogan places the reader there in several ways. The geography, climate, speech patterns and so on all reflect that part of New England.
Burial of the Dead is the story of the death of one elderly woman, and of the lives of many of the people with whom she interacted. It’s a literary approach to telling a crime story, and features a look at life in modern New England. But what’s your view? Have you read Burial of the Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Tuesday, 31 May/Wednesday, 1 June – For the Love of Mike – Rhys Bowen
Monday, 6 June/Tuesday, 7 June – Total Chaos – Jean Claude Izzo
Monday, 13 June/Tuesday, 14 June – The Body Snatcher – Patricia Melo