Author: Grant Jerkins

2010, Berkley

Filed under: Mystery

The title of this novel is a lie. Well, OK, of course it is; a story about a very simple crime would only last a paragraph. But the title is a telling lie. At first, the crime appears, indeed, to be simple: a woman—who happens to be both crazy and rich—gets murdered, smashed in the head with a crystal ashtray. I suppose that qualifies literally as a simple crime, but the complexity of a crime lies in the motives and machinations behind the act itself.

At first the police assume the woman was killed by her developmentally disabled son—the son once killed a roommate of his at a care facility in exactly the same manner. The case is about to be closed and forgotten when an intrepid (and desperate) lawyer—the former Assistant DA, shamed by a botched case—discovers that the murderer was left-handed, like the woman’s husband and unlike their son, and they put the husband on trial.

There are no witnesses and only a few forensic clues, primarily that nugget of detail, “left-handed murderer.” Which means that everyone—the press, the DA, and we readers—has to interpret people’s motives to solve the case. It’s in the ensuing messy whorl of emotions and characters that A Very Simple Crime finds purchase. At the end of it all, this is one of the most nuanced mysteries I’ve read this year.

The narrative bounces between half a dozen characters’ perspectives. There’s Adam Lee, the husband and father on trial. Adam is a real creep: for example, he was initially attracted to his wife because she was unbalanced and suicidal. Monty Lee, Adam’s brother, defends him at trial; Monty’s good looks and charm hide a sinister undercurrent. Leo Hewitt is the desperate ex-ADA, whose ambition trumps his righteousness. Paula Manning is the current ADA, the prosecutor in the murder trial who exploits Leo’s hard work for her own gain.

This book was hard to get published, the story goes, because among this cast there is no “rootable character.” And that’s true; Leo comes the closest to likeability, but he’s too needy and pathetic to be a hero. However, the lack of a proper protagonist in Crime doesn’t hurt it a bit. After all, the average mystery hero is a formless blob who gets his motivation from near-universal emotional reactions, like hating rapists.

So, instead of a bland white knight hard-charging at a slimy thug, Crime features a collection of soiled consciences put into tricky situations that ask interesting, suspenseful questions. Like, for instance, does Monty Lee actually want his brother and client to get convicted?

I won’t lay out anything more specific about the plot so as not to spoil it, but suffice it to say that Jerkins keeps the tension high, even in flashbacks.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s the prose. Jerkins writes with a relatively simple style that occasionally rests on cliches, and occasionally is just plain unclear, like this passage when Leo Hewitt remembers the prosecutor who rescued his mother’s life savings after she was duped by a con man:

The prosecutor had even helped Mrs. Hewitt figure out a more conservative way to invest her inheritance, and seven months before she died, Leo’s mother saw him graduate summa cum laude from law school.

I assume that “him” refers to Leo, but grammatically its antecedent is “The prosecutor,” which confused the hell out of me when I first read it. A bigger problem is that Jerkins has a tendency to “tell” instead of “show” his characters as the old workshop saying goes. For instance, here’s Adam Lee, telling us what he’s like:

Where a single word or gesture might end a fight, I would choose the opposite word or gesture to extend it. To extend the drama. I even relished Monty’s concern for my well-being. Where a brief hug or a solemn vow might have put his worries to rest, I chose instead to extend the conflict, heighten the tension.

I read this mostly as a shortcut. Illustrating Adam Lee’s tendency to extend drama would take too long, and this is a quite short book.

Still, Jerkins writes better than at least 90% of commercial mystery writers out there, and in other aspects (like his use of multiple perspectives), he excels. Despite those few shortcuts, his characters are believable and well above the crime-fiction bar. The prose ticks and bangs every so often, but the story runs smoothly.

Crime is a very quick read, half an afternoon if you push it. In that sense, the book itself reflects its titular crime: on the outside, it seems simple—a few good twists pulled out of a spare premise. But once you get into the underlayers, Crime and the lie of its title reveal a complex mystery that’s surprisingly deep and well worth reading.

Similar reads: Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn; The Weight of Silence, by Heather Gudenkauf

[This review was requested and a review copy was provided.]