At his request, Rob has been detailed from Boston to the fictional town of Port Hope, Maine, where the case arose, because he grew up there. Kimmy admits to him, first, that she took part in a hit-and-run killing while riding in a pickup truck driven by her buddy Mathias Burke. Second, she helped Burke cover up the related murder of two friends: that old classmate who received Kimmy’s sympathy card years earlier and the classmate’s boyfriend, both of whom had the misfortune to witness the fatal accident. Third, drugs were involved — one new feature of Port Hope since Rob moved away is its entanglement in the nationwide opioid-abuse epidemic.
Rob’s satisfaction with a job well done is short-lived, however. Kimmy asserts that she and Burke stashed the corpses in a pond, but divers come up empty-handed. Then, thanks to an anonymous email, the bodies are found — buried in dry ground nowhere near the pond. Also, a striking insignia that Kimmy recalled seeing on the hood of the “guilty” truck is missing from the same-model vehicle when it is found with the victims’ blood stains inside, and police techies are certain that the hood has never been repainted.
Kimmy insists she is telling the truth, and Rob wants to believe her, but standing in the way are those contradicting corpses, that vanished decoration and the great esteem in which Mathias Burke is held. Far from being thought of as the hit-and-run type or a coldblooded murderer, Burke is “the paragon of the peninsula” on which Port Hope is located, a hard-working young businessman who takes care of the region’s many vacation homes in the offseason.
There is also a troubling statistic: “Of the first two hundred and fifty people the Innocence Project [a nationwide NGO] exonerated through DNA evidence, an astonishing 16 percent had at some point confessed to crimes they hadn’t committed.” Rallying behind Burke, the townspeople and the local authorities dismiss Kimmy as one more self-deluding liar. Rob is ordered to drop the case; when he disobeys, he is exiled to an FBI field office in Montana. Impressed by Kimmy’s refusal to recant, he sneaks back to Maine, determined to find out “how it happened.”
Burke, in his encounters with Rob, makes for a riveting antagonist — preternaturally calm when confronted with evidence pointing to him, happy to toy with the hot-tempered federal agent. And in a powerful scene, Koryta bares the anatomy of a situation that could easily have culminated in a wrongful killing by the police. “Even the simulator programmers [at the FBI training facility] weren’t that sadistic,” Rob muses about the close call, which centered on a suspect holding a gun — on closer inspection, a paint gun.
Koryta’s plotting is sure-footed, and the secrets he discloses, one by one, at the novel’s end are both surprising and plausible. My main reservation about “How It Happened” is the massive amount of violence inflicted on Rob, from which he bounces back too readily. The beatings serve the authorial purpose of stilling Rob’s last remaining doubts as to Kimmy’s veracity — why bother to brutalize such a discredited investigator unless he is on to something? But the savagery and Rob’s amazing recoveries seem out of place in a novel that trades so briskly in finesse.
Yet Koryta has seized upon such an unusual and engrossing premise that the excess punishment heaped on his hero can be overlooked. In the last few pages, one of the guilty parties states that premise with chilling clarity: “When you kill someone, you have two choices. The first one is to try to hide how you did it, which is what almost everyone does, and almost everyone gets caught. The second one is to show exactly how you did it — and then prove it couldn’t have happened that way.”
Watching that second choice play itself out makes “How It Happened” a book the reader won’t soon forget.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
HOW IT HAPPENED
By Michael Koryta
Little, Brown. 354 pp. $27