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Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

Penguin, 248 pages, $17 (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, c1998)

I have wanted to read “A Crime in the Neighborhood” ever since I saw it listed as one of Thomas H. Cook’s ten best mysteries in Publishers Weekly in 2013. This is what Cook had to say:

I have recommended this book many times to all kinds of readers. For me, it is a novel that uses suspense in the best possible way, not by having a character confront one contrived obstacle after another in a mindless stream of action, but by creating an atmosphere of deep moral peril in which the culminating tragedy seems as inevitable as it is, well…tragic. It is also one of those books in which the title become[s] completely apt, and very moving, after one has completed the book. In this case, the “crime in the neighborhood” turns out to be far more profound and long lasting than any single act of violence could be.

This was high praise because Thomas H. Cook’s books are lessons in good, evocative, psychologically tense writing. In many ways Suzanne Berne’s debut novel evokes many of the same feelings as do Cook’s. There is a strong narrative element. The first-person narrator usually is looking back after a separation of many years from the “incident” at the core of the book. You know there is a moral lesson the narrator has learned at his or her expense.

In “A Crime in the Neighborhood,” the initial crime is the murder of Boyd Ellison, a twelve-year-old neighborhood boy. He was not well-liked by his peers. He irritated them, bullied them, and eviscerated insects. Nevertheless, he was dead and it was a new experience for the kids on the block, one of whom is the narrator of the story.

Marsha was ten years old at the time. Her father had just left the family to run off with his wife’s youngest sister. There was a void. Anger could only fill it so far. Craziness filled it a little more. Marsha knew that her father had abandoned her. Her older twin siblings were scarcely any help. They believed in ignoring and belittling her. Marsha tells her story from the vantage point of adulthood. It is a voice strongly anchored in the present with an adult perspective overlying what happened twenty-five years ago. Berne does a masterful job of creating a story set in one time and being told in another.

In 1972, Marsha’s particular Washington D.C. suburban neighborhood was “Leave It to Beaver” country, as she recalls. When Boyd is murdered and molested, the innocence of the time is broken. That innocence has its own faults and frailties, and the bubble would have burst soon anyway, but the murder hastens it.

In Marsha’s perfect block, an anomaly has occurred. Mr. Green, an unattractive middle-aged bachelor has moved in next door, and Marsha takes an almost instant dislike to him. By then, her father has been gone for a couple of weeks. Shortly afterwards, Boyd is murdered. Lois, Marsha’s mother, is grappling with her own abandonment issues and whatever fault she carries for the death of her marriage. She has no solace to give her strange younger daughter. The twins are effete snobs. This mixture is added to the cauldron and brought to a boil.

This is Marsha describing her father:

He was a mostly mild man with a weakness for passion, a suburban father burdened with the heart of a Russian hero without any sort of balancing grand intellect or ironic world view.

and again,

He loved thick socks and the melancholy light of evenings in late summer. He loved to mow the grass because he said that mowing released the lawn’s tender smell.

“Crime” must be redefined by the end of the book. It bears similarities to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its young main character, but it’s like a photographic negative of that work. It’s the end of childhood for Scout as it is for Marsha. For each there is a moral to be learned, but it’s not the same one.

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