by Mark Arsenault
Review by Don Metzler
St. Martin's Minotaur Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0312335962
Date: 28 November, 2006 List Price $23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
A bloody corpse is discovered in an abandoned boathouse, but where is the head that belongs with this body? A prison escapee is shot and then drowned just when it looks as if he may have won his way to freedom. Who was the murderer? And were both crimes committed by the same person?
Billy Povich is a former newspaper reporter who has been demoted to obit writer for the Providence Daily Pen. He’s an addicted gambler, and is in debt for his gambling losses to nearly every bookie and loan shark in town. Billy’s wife left him two years ago, because of his gambling habit, and now Billy plots to kill the retired policeman whom he holds responsible in her subsequent death. As if his life was not already complicated enough, he is summoned for jury duty in the trial of the man accused of killing the prison escapee. Billy decides he must put his own murderous plans for revenge on hold until the conclusion of the trial, but he still must scramble to hold at bay the bill collectors and enforcers who appear daily on his doorstep.
Billy lives with his seven year old son and his elderly, wheelchair-bound father, a pair of kindred souls who have decided that, breakfast being the best meal of the day, there is no reason they should not partake of it at any hour; 4:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning may find Bo and the old man hunched over their bowls of cream of wheat and Count Chocula. And since Billy prefers to go to his office in the dead of night to write his obituaries, the Povich household is unconstrained by any semblance of regular hours.
As the trial progresses, Billy is put off by the posturing of the state prosecutor, and begins to suspect that the defendant, a prison escapee himself, may be a victim of some sort of coverup. Billy starts to form his own ideas, and conducts a personal investigation during his hours away from the courtroom. But it becomes increasingly evident that someone doesn’t want the truth uncovered, and Billy must keep one step ahead of his mysterious pursuers while trying to unravel the facts.
Gravewriter is one of the better novels I have come across lately. The book is liberally peopled with characters who jump off the page with their uniqueness and authenticity. There is the Segway-riding radio-evangelist-cum-politician. There is the defense attorney who keeps live spiders in his glasses case. There is the spiky-haired young woman who tends to homeless addicts in the dangerous world of the city’s back alleys and along the waterfront. And there are a host of others, all masterfully drawn characters.
The plot frequently follows threads and tangents that at first seem unrelated, but Arsenault expertly ties them together by the conclusion. The author’s style of writing is colorful and fun to read. The level of tension, especially through the second half of the book as it builds towards the climax, is high enough to keep one reading long into the night.
I have not read either of Arsenault’s previous novels (Spiked and Speak Ill of the Living) but I will be watching for both of them. If one were to devise a rating system measured in blunt instruments, and the scale is from one to five with five being the highest, this book would rate an unequivocal five blunt instruments. A great piece of fiction.