As anyone who watches AMC’s “ The Killing knows, a convicted murderer can win you over. Noa , the woman at the center of Elizabeth L. Silver’s fantastic first novel, is a little like Peter Sarsgaard ’s character in this regard: You can’t help rooting for her. And wondering, Did she do it?

When we meet Noa, the 35-year-old former academic superstar has been at the maximum-security Pennsylvania Institute for Women for 10 years, and she is six months from her execution date. Her crime: the murder of her father’s pregnant girlfriend. As she tells us, “I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.” She declined to take the stand during her five-day trial.

Enter Marlene Dixon, the mother of the woman Noa murdered. She arrives on the other side of the prison’s plexiglass with Oliver Stansted, a lawyer from a nonprofit organization representing inmates on death row. Marlene is the founder of MAD (Mothers Against Death), and she offers to lobby the governor for clemency if Noa will admit that she never meant to do what she did. The problem is, Noa still refuses to defend herself or to shed any light on what happened on that deadly day in early January 2003.

Silver’s story alternates between snapshots of prison — “a vacuum into which people are sucked to clean up the outside” — and glimpses of the life that brought Noa to the University of Pennsylvania, where she suffered a very public miscarriage in the library. Braided in with these two strands are letters from Marlene to her dead daughter, which she slips between cracks at the cemetery, hoping her daughter’s spirit will find “unique and mystical ways of answering them.”Although these grieving letters educate us about the mother-daughter relationship, they make up the least authentic sections of the story. (Wouldn’t Marlene’s dead daughter already know much of this information, including her father’s eye color?)

This minor flaw doesn’t interfere with the fun of doing some grown-up Nancy Drew sleuthing as the dark mystery unfurls. Was it a deranged intruder who killed Marlene’s daughter? Was the bullet in her chest actually the cause of death, or was it a heart condition? And how did Noa emerge from the scene of the crime with a gunshot wound to her own shoulder? Could Noa’s father be culpable — or could Marlene herself?

Of course, the most urgent question won’t be answered until the end: Will Noa die? Silver makes us think critically about capital punishment without ever getting up on a soapbox or turning her great yarn into a civics lesson.

As this unstoppable story bounds end-over-end to “X-Day,” we are reminded that everybody is guilty of something. Forgiveness, freedom and peace are rare commodities, and Silver keeps us guessing about whether or not we will find them here.

Egan is a freelance writer and editor whose book reviews have appeared in the Star-Ledger of New Jersey and the New York Times.


By Elizabeth L. Silver

Crown. 310 pp. $25