The Rambling Mann

Book reviews and occasional other thoughts from writer Richard Mann.

Friday, March 31, 2006

And Then I Read...Witness to Myself, by Seymour Shubin

Some thoughts on an interesting and touching book and maybe some ideas about what publishers have to do to market mysteries....

Witness to Myself by Seymour Shubin
A Hard Case Crime novel, April, 2006

I have to admit that I really enjoy the old noir classics as well as any well-written mystery from the old days. (In my case, the "old days" are the 20s to the 60s.) The Hard Case Crime series from Dorchester Publishing is reviving many of these old lost classics while also publishing new, fresh books that fit into that hard-boiled genre that we used to love so much.

Today, I just finished reading their latest title--which, incidentally, came because I've subscribed to their book club. Witness to Myself by Seymour Shubin is a touching, realistic book that resonates deeply with something inside me. I literally had tears in my eyes at the end. (I get teary-eyed at movies fairly frequently, but rarely do books affect me that deeply.)

I need to figure out what I really think about this book. To do that, as it is with many writers, I need to write about it. So, here we are.

Let me give you a quick idea of the plot. Fifteen years ago, 15-year-old Alan Benning is on vacation with his parents at Cape Cod. He goes for a run along the beach, and then off into the woods. There, he has an encounter with a young girl whose kite has gotten caught in a tree. In a moment of confusion and raging adolescent hormones, something happens. He is never sure just what the result was--he ran away as quickly as possible and never went back.

It haunts him for the next 15 years, as he grows to be a successful lawyer and then a high executive with a philanthropic foundation. Did he accidentally kill that girl, or was she just unconscious when he left? He never knew and was deathly afraid to find out.

I won't tell you more of what happens, but it is frightening and it is realistically portrayed.

The thing that impressed me about this book, however, is not the crime and mystery or any of the sensational things that appear in the blurbs on the cover and inside front sheets. No, that isn't it at all. You see, Alan Benning is a decent guy, the product of an upper middle-class home with a normal background and nothing unusual about him. As I came to know him, I identified strongly with him. As a teen, he's confused about a lot of things, most notably sex. He feels guilty about it all the time. He worries about whether he's a good enough person. He's nervous around girls. He's bright at school, well loved at home, successful in his work, and apparently normal.

But are any of us really normal? Alan may have a hint of something dark within him, but he hates it and fights it on those rare occasions when he feels that maybe it's really there. He'd like to be totally honest, but he can't be. He's ashamed of things he occasionally does. He worries. Although his life to all appearances--and in all reality, with the exception of this one incident in the woods--is pleasant and good, he's just not as happy as he ought to be.

Does that sound familiar? Maybe I'm just a not-very-bright fellow who had and has some of these same feelings, and maybe nobody else is like that--except, of course, for the fictional Alan Benning and probably his creator, Seymour Shubin. But I doubt it. I think there's something universal in Alan, and I think a lot of us middle-aged males who have not have exceptional experiences in life will recognize ourselves in Alan.

So what we have in this book is the story of real guy, a lot like me and others that I know, who has a terrible experience. It works through the results of that experience until it builds to an inexorable climax fifteen years later. And the ending hurts, even though you can't really figure out what it's going to be until it happens.

I rarely encounter characters in mystery novels that I can identify with so completely. And this is why this book is so powerful and so emotional.

Now, a few comments about the marketing. Reading the blurbs, you expect heart-stopping action, pulse-pounding suspense that grips you so tightly you want to scream, and maybe a little vicarious terror.

Nonsense. This book is written in a simple, straightforward style that puts you into the mind of this ordinary guy doing mostly ordinary things. It has the feel of what he would say to you if he were telling his story. No literary fireworks, no extended metaphors, no fancy words to describe things. Just plain unvarnished prose. That's what makes it so deceptively powerful.

Yes, as the story moves on to its conclusion, I was putting off doing anything else but reading. Yes, I wanted to know what was going to happen next and I wanted to know right now. But it wasn't the same way that movie thrillers and suspenseful TV shows do it. This was calm, rational, exposition that had all the suspense in the situation. There are no MTV-generation quick cuts and flashes, no fireworks. Just raw emotion calmly described.

So, all the blurbs lead you to believe that you're getting another best-seller style thriller. Instead, you get this ordinary, everyday style that packs ten times more punch.

At any rate, get the book and read it. If Alan Benning is not someone that you recognize as the kind of guy that lives in your body, you'll learn how life is for a lot of us normal, unremarkable people that you see every day.