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An American Killing is fifth of Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's eight works of fiction. It's assured, accomplished, and utterly engrossing. Ms Smith's toolbox of narrative-enhancing moves must weigh a ton.
Take the beach house at the beginning of An American Killing. Denise Burke smolders because her husband, Nick, who inherited it, sold it soon after she confessed to having an affair with a Rhode Island congressman. Now the congressman is dead, the apparent casualty of a misadventure involving drugs. It all seems plausible, but nothing is as it seems. Nick did not sell the house to get back at Denise, who, as he well knew, loved it. Quite the contrary. When the dénouement ties everything up with an elegantly - but just as plausibly - tied bow, a genuinely shocking connection between the sale and the death will emerge.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith writes a clear, level-headed prose that is too supple for flatness even though it avoids complications and curlicues like the plague. Denise, who narrates the book, shares the author's mordant sense of humor and irreverence for the great and the good. She, too, is a writer, and she has done rather better than her creator, at least in material terms. Married to an adviser to the Clinton Administration (the book appeared in 1998), Denise has built a career writing true-crime nonfiction accounts. Her book about O J Simpson has done very, very well, probably because "it's my contention that O J intended to kill his children, probably in front of their mother, before killing her. To punish her." If that isn't taking the gloves off, I don't know what is. You pinch yourself and remember that this is just a novel, that there is no such O J book.
We begin at the congressman's funeral. Because Denise begins in the present tense, we naturally assume, once she shifts to the past, that the funeral comes at the end of the story. But it doesn't; in many ways, it's the beginning. Denise has been trying to solve the mystery of several murders of varying brutality, some of which were to be at the center of her new book. When she resumes the present tense, toward the end of the novel, she has abandoned this project, not because she can't make sense of her evidence but because she has been told in more ways than one to drop it. And then, being Denise, she has taken it up again. An American Killing begins anew, wraps up with a bang, and ends with Denise starting a new book about an axe-murderer.
Much of the story takes place in the fictional town of New Caxton, Rhode Island. It is a beaten-down mill town, one with no working mills. Indeed, Denise can't imagine what the inhabitants do to make ends meet. She goes to the town because the congressman, not yet her lover, wants her to right a wrong. Three generations of a family were hideously slain, and a young black me, a decayed star athlete, was pinned with the rap. The congressmen is certain that he is innocent. With the help of a sympathetic librarian, Rosie, Denise acquaints herself with the case. Ms Smith takes her time filling in the details of the crime, which only becomes more inexplicable. Then a determined reporter dies in an automobile accident, and the congressman inexplicably changes his mind about exonerating the convicted man. Denise smells rotten fish and intensifies her search.
Mrs Smith has a very sound sense of pacing. She knows when to relent a bit and when to take a break, but the action is almost completely non-stop. (The only really gratuitous moment involves a telephone call from Hillary Clinton about what to wear for Parents' Day at Friends, and it's over in about a page. It's also good fun.) A great deal of the information that Denise amasses requires reassessment later, as new information comes in. With the help of Poppy Rice, a former prosecutor whom she befriended during an early book, Denise finds out things that only the FBI knows, and there comes a point when Poppy takes some information directly to Nick, thinking that he will have it taken care of at the White House. The pieces fall into alignment at an exquisitely slow tempo; then, when the present-tense narration picks up, they arrange themselves with almost blinding speed. I did not expect Ms Smith to tie up all the loose ends of her complicated story; in the end, of course, it turned out not to be a complicated story at all, not when it was all laid out.
It would be wrong, however, to regard An American Killing as a mere crime story. Like many of the best books in the genre, it is long on purely personal problems - ie, romance. Denise, like her creator, is a thoughtful grown-up. On one of the last nights that she spends at the beach house - it's not far from New Caxton, as it happens - Denise is accompanied only by her beloved dog, Buddy.
Buddy followed me upstairs to bed. I lay there staring into the shadowy ceiling, listening to Buddy's snores from the rug and the warm pounding on the spit of land. It was a windy night. Storm coming, maybe. I love storms. I could use one. Once, when I was offering my sympathies to Poppy concerning her frustration with men, I told her that someday she would meet a man who would cause her to lie awake at night thinking about him. She snorted. She said, "If I end up in that bad a shape, regressed to adolescent mooning, then he'd better meet my every need. Of course, if he were meeting my every need, I wouldn't be lying in bed thinking about him. I'd be in bed with him, teaching him a few new tricks.
I rolled over. If I didn't want to leave Nick and if I ended up having an affair with Owen - but didn't want Nick to suspect that I was having an affair - I'd have to sleep with both men during the same time period. If I stopped the occasional nights with Nick of we're-both-here-so-we-might-as-well-do-it, Nick would wonder about me Could I have sex with Nick as a ploy? Once I overheard two women speaking in a rest room. One said to the other that she wasn't with her boyfriend that night because he had to save up some sperm for his wife. I admired the fact that, for this woman, having an affair was like cutting her toenails.
I rolled over again and told myself to stop thinking unpleasant thoughts. Either you're moral or you're not. Make the choice, Denise, and take the consequences like a man, as Leo would put it. The first time he put it that way, I asked him if he ever considered the consequence of the female gender being absent in language. He told me to get over it.
Mary-Ann Tirone Smith is a past-master at charging her large canvas with intricate interconnections, but her cool heroine's humanity warms every page. (March 2007)
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