In The Spotlight: Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead

>In The Spotlight: Martha Grimes' The Anodyne NecklaceHello, All,

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


Filed under Burial of the Dead, Michael Hogan

33 responses to “In The Spotlight: Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead

  1. Pingback: In The Spotlight: Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead | e. michael helms

  2. Not red any of this author’s work at all, in fact I’ve never heard of them but you do whet the appetite and I shall add this to the ever growing list of ‘must look for and read’ Margot. Very interesting way of writing by the looks of it.

  3. Oops, read not red. Keyboard news a hoover and my fingers need chopping. Sorry.

  4. Ooh I do like the sound of this one Margot – in many ways I enjoy reading about a crime more when more of the characters are really explored – this is going on the wish list so thank you for the introduction!

    • I hope you’ll enjoy it if you get the chance to read it, Cleo. Hogan really does explore his characters in this one, and it’s interesting to see what they turn out to be like as the layers are peeled away.

  5. It sounds like an interesting mix, with noir, literary, and some police procedures thrown in.

  6. I do like the idea of a serious novel about crime, one that pays attention to both plot and character – thanks, I’d not really heard of this one before.

    • It’s a different approach to telling a murder story, Sergio. It’s one of those novels where the characters’ histories and so on are at least as important as is the murder, the investigation, and the like. IF you do read this, I’ll be keen to know what you think of it.

  7. This sounds like an interesting read, Margot. One to sit back and enjoy rather than race through the pages. I have to admit to have not come across the author before today but shall look out for him now. Thank you.

  8. Margot, this sounds like it would be an entertaining read. I enjoy books where there seems to be a prime suspect like Wyman but you’re really not sure. Thanks for the introduction to another intriguing story and author.

    • You put that really well, Mason. It’s one of those stories where you learn more and more as layers of the characters and plot get peeled away. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  9. Sounds good, Margot, though I haven’t read a lot of novels with many character voices and perspectives. But the diversity of characters can add layers to a good crime story.

  10. Margot, I can always count on you to introduce me to books I want to read! Thanks. Have a Happy Day. 🙂

  11. I like the way you really keep audience in mind when you review books. You point out things that readers may or may not enjoy based on their preferences. Nice job! Literary + genre is really gearing up. There’s literary horror from Brian Evenson, literary fairy tales from Kate Bernheimer, and literary fantasy from Kelly Link, for example.

    • Thanks for the kind words, GtL. I try to make these analyses as objective as I can. And you’re right about the advent of literary + genre. I’m seeing it quite a lot, and it’s an interesting trend. Makes you wonder what will happen to those distinctions as time goes by if the trend continues.

  12. Col

    Another new-to-me author I hadn’t heard of. Probably not enough time (or deep enough pockets to take him on board!) You’ll have to read him for me!

  13. I have not read this one, so I have nothing to add to the discussion. But I will be looking for this one in the library because of your fine posting. Thanks.

  14. I was very very impressed with this one when I read it a while back: I thought it was marvellous, clever and unusual. I’m glad you’ve reminded me of it – I meant to find out what else he’s written, and now I will pursue that…

  15. tracybham

    Sounds very interesting, Margot. I am glad that you have introduced me to this book, although it does not look that easy to find.

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