Neely Tucker’s first novel takes place in the waning days of President Bill Clinton’s administration and has a familiar premise: a media feeding frenzy centering on a missing white girl from a “good family.”
Sarah Reese is the teenage daughter of a federal judge on the cusp of being named to the Supreme Court. After her weekly dance class in Park View, Sarah goes into a mini-mart to make a quick purchase, and she’s taunted by three black teenage boys. Sarah attempts to slip out the back door, and that’s the last she’s seen until her body is found in an alley dumpster. A dragnet is quickly launched, and the three boys are taken into custody.
Reporter Sully Carter (who works for an unnamed newspaper that only could be a fictionalized version of The Washington Post, where Tucker is a staff writer) is part of the media swarm on the scene.
While most of his colleagues flock to news conferences and take down official statements, he looks up Sly Hastings, a neighborhood drug baron. Both Hastings and Carter have had run-ins with Judge Reese, and Hastings tells Carter that he doesn’t know who killed the girl — but he’s certain it’s not the young men who will be charged with the crime.
Carter knows Hastings’s street intel is better than that of the D.C. police, and with the help of the drug baron, he’s soon chasing a different, parallel story in which Sarah Reese’s murder is just one piece.
On the cubicle wall in Carter’s office is a map of every murder in the District in one year, categorized by colored pushpins denoting race and gender, and the Sarah Reese killing, he notices, is the third pink pin in a neighborhood and city where nearly all the other victims are black males. (The story is based on a real-life string of serial murders in Park View in the 1990s, a crime spree that went unnoticed because the victims were young women from sketchy backgrounds.)
To Carter, three murdered women within a couple of blocks is a disturbing pattern. To his editors, it’s a distraction — the other women were minorities from questionable backgrounds, not the privileged daughters of powerful white men. Teenagers with police records have been arrested and are working their way through the court system. Why waste time on a case that, by all appearances, is closed? And why continue to pester one of the District’s most powerful men?
To Carter, a foreign war correspondent returned to Washington, the beat’s the same whether it’s Sarajevo or Anacostia: acts of random violence connected to drugs and money. He’s a functioning alcoholic, physically and mentally scarred, feeling ground down by bureaucratic editors and a younger generation of reporters who haven’t developed the street connections to do more than construct an official version of events with the help of police officials.
Tucker uses his story to raise some legitimate criticisms of American media: Editors give disproportionate coverage to wealthy, white victims, and they’re quick to drop one story to move on to the next. Setting his tale in the 1990s also gives Tucker the chance to show how much newspapers have changed. The 24-hour Internet news cycle hasn’t yet taken root, tomorrow’s front page is still more important than getting the story online immediately and good reporters are dependent on door knocks, land lines and library research rather than e-mail, cellphones and Google.
Tucker pulls off a neat, double-twist ending with a Hollywood-flashy finish, but it relies heavily on a dubious plot device involving one of the murdered women, who seems to have saved and meticulously cataloged every receipt from every purchase she ever made, no matter how small.
Stronger, though, is the character of Sully Carter, whose vinegary world-weariness makes him an unappealing man but a most appealing character. After a news conference where a shaken Judge Reese scolds the assembled reporters and tells them to go home and let his family mourn in peace, Carter watches the rest of the press head off with their canned quotes before he trudges back up the driveway and demands a private audience with the grieving father.
Carter may not be likable, but there’s a lot to like in Tucker’s storytelling.
Allman is the editor of Gambit, the alt-weekly newspaper in New Orleans.
THE WAYS OF THE DEAD
Viking, 274 pp., $27.95