Sunday, August 12, 2007

'Deadly Secrets'

Today begins Part One of "Deadly Secrets," a 15-part series in the Newark Star-Ledger about Robert Zarinsky, the imprisoned New Jersey killer who was convicted of the brutal murder of a 17-year-old girl and remains the chief suspect in a long string of unsolved homicides in the state. It was written by two-time Pulitzer finalist Robin Gaby Fisher, based on more than a year of reporting by her and fellow Ledger staffer Judith Lucas. The Ledger asked me to narrate the daily podcast version of the series and I was happy to oblige. It's a powerful - and sometimes almost unbelievable - story about how a killer eluded justice for years and left a long trail of death and ruined lives behind him. And why he just might go free before long.

If the name sounds familiar, it's because Zarinsky's been in the news again lately. In 1999, he was charged with the murder of a Rahway police officer during a botched robbery in 1958, a case that had gone unsolved for more than 40 years. Though Zarinsky's own sister testified against him, he was ultimately acquitted. According to the jury foreman, the jurors believed Zarinsky had done it, but that prosecutors, hampered by the passage of time since the crime, hadn't adequately proven their case. The officer's wife - Elizabeth Bernoskie - sued Zarinsky for wrongful death and was awarded $9.5 million in 2003, though she only collected $150,000, via a mutual fund Zarinsky had inherited. Bernoskie, now 76, used the money to pay legal fees and then split the rest amongst her six children. But Zarinsky sued back and, last month, an appellate court sided with him and ordered Bernoskie to repay the $150,000 - money she no longer has - to Zarinsky. She's now in danger of having to forfeit her house in order to meet the judgment.

It's quite a story, and quite a series.

Monday, August 06, 2007

One book and beyond ... Vol. 3

Continuing my personal list - inspired by The Rap Sheet's One Book Project - of crime, mystery and thriller novels that were “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.”

Jonathan Valin's 1989 novel EXTENUATING CIRCUMSTANCES would be another candidate for the short list of the ten best private eye novels ever written. It was Valin's eighth novel about Cincinnati private detective Harry Stoner - and the most uncompromising.

It starts off in fairly standard PI fashion. Stoner is hired to find Ira Lessing, a prominent businessman and philanthropist who's gone missing in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River. When his bloodstained BMW is found abandoned, everyone fears the worst - and with good reason. Stoner soon discovers Lessing had a secret life neither his family nor his business partner ever suspected. The investigation leads him into Kentucky's seamy riverside red-light districts, and a world of teenage hustlers, prostitutes and junkies. Stoner has a hard time letting go of the case, even after Lessing's badly beaten body turns up, and a teenage boy confesses to the murder. Stoner suspects the real killer is still out there, a theory confirmed by a subsequent blackmail attempt and threats to destroy the dead man's reputation by revealing the lurid details of his other life.

It's become a cliche in modern detective fiction to give the hero a dangerous, more physical sidekick, who can carry out acts of violence and vengeance that the hero would like to but can't, without becoming less sympathetic in the eyes of the average reader. This device allows the hero to keep the moral high ground while at the same time offering readers the satisfaction of a violent demise for the villains. It's a useful plot device, which is why so many use it, but it's also a cop-out. The heroes don't have to take the responsibility for - or face the repercussions of - the violent acts they've benefited from. That's why it's called fiction.

In CIRCUMSTANCES, on the other hand, Valin effectively shows these devices for the contrivances they are. He gives neither Stoner nor the reader an easy way out. The book does offer a sense of catharsis and closure, but only after Stoner commits an act in the final pages that few writers would be brave enough to let their heroes do. It's shocking and surprising and at the same time makes perfect sense. And it feels like real life.

However, it also brought the series to a level of intensity that might have made it difficult to go back to business as usual. The next Stoner book, 1991's SECOND CHANCE, seemed tame in comparison, and the one after that, THE MUSIC LOVERS, was an intentionally lightweight lark. The 11th in the series, 1995's MISSING, revisited some of the same themes as CIRCUMSTANCES, but it sometimes seemed like Stoner had shot his bolt in the final scenes of that earlier book. And Valin may have felt the same way. There has yet to be another Stoner novel - or a book of any type - from him to date.