An American Killing

An American Killing

by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith

As such things are measured in Washington, Denise Burke has everything a woman of wit could want: two hip kids able to look after themselves; a marriage constructed to allow maximum mutual leeway with a husband smack in the center of Clinton's inner circle; and a high-profile lover, the most eligible bachelor on Capitol Hill. Plus, she's a bestselling author of

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As such things are measured in Washington, Denise Burke has everything a woman of wit could want: two hip kids able to look after themselves; a marriage constructed to allow maximum mutual leeway with a husband smack in the center of Clinton's inner circle; and a high-profile lover, the most eligible bachelor on Capitol Hill. Plus, she's a bestselling author of several true crime books.

When her lover urges Denise to look into an old murder in his district - and then just as urgently begs her to drop the whole thing, her stubborn streak kicks in. And when he dies in flagrante with a D.C. callgirl, her bullshit detector goes on red alert: the good congressman didn't have to pay for sex. But when death strikes even closer to home, Denise becomes a woman with a big-time problem. Someone is very serious about getting her to drop the old case. Serious enough to make her the target of the next hit.

Editorial Reviews

Pam Lambert
With its fascinating setup and scrappy sleuth, Smith's fifth novel is a fast-paced thriller that truly respects a reader's intelligence.
-- People Magazine
Carolyn Banks
Scandal, gossip, skullduggery, and wit. . .make An American Killing plenty potent.
-- The Washington Post Book World
Tracey Reim
This sexy story of revenge and betrayal is over all too quickly.
Library Journal
Denise Burke is a successful true-crime writer married to a political advisor close to the Clinton White House. At a literary function she runs into Congressman Owen Hall, who gives her an idea for her next book. He believes the man convicted of murdering three people in his small hometown of New Caxton is innocent. Motivated partly by an attraction to the good-looking Owen and partly by idle curiosity, Denise visits New Caxton and starts a little background research at the local library. When the congressman is found dead in rather shady circumstances, she begins to suspect there is a lot more to the three homicides then Owen led her to believe. Denise has a wonderful best friend, a great dog, and an old-time newspaper buddy that round out an entertaining cast of characters. Unfortunately, the name dropping in this book is way over the top: everyone from Richard Condon to O.J. Simpson gets a mention. Still, the story is relentlessly readable, full of crafty insights and witty dialog. Readers who enjoy the work of Susan Isaacs and Olivia Goldsmith will be thrilled to add this writer to their reading agendas. A sure winner and purchase for any public library
-- Margaret Ann Hanes, Sterling Heights Public Library, MI
Ellen Feldman
Superbly drawn characters who find themselves on intimate terms with evil.
-- The New York Times Book Review
September 1998

With An American Killing, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith has created what may be the seriocomic suspense novel of the year. Smith takes readers on a wild trip with true-crime author Denise Burke, who discovers that an innocent man may have been convicted for murder. We asked author and Mystery Scene editor Ed Gorman to examine what he calls "the debut of a major-major crime novelist."

Laughing All the Way to the Morgue

I lean into him and whisper back, "What?"
"Who the hell planned all this anyway?"
"The President."
"No shit."

You gotta a love a book with dialogue like that on the very first page. Of course, there is dialogue that good -- or better -- on virtually every page. I can't think of a mystery-cum-thriller this funny since Susan Isaacs's Compromising Positions.

Here's the story line in broadstroke: Denise is a true-crime writer caught in a dozing marriage to Clinton aide Nick Burke. At a book party, she meets Congressman Owen Hall, who tells her about a murder trial in his district, and how the man convicted may be innocent. Denise is intrigued not only by the story but by the congressman himself. An affair soon follows -- as does a mysterious and sudden request by the congressman to forget the story he told her, the implication being that it's too dangerous to investigate. What's going on here? But of course she investigates. And plot twist begins to pile upon plot twist.

Books this funny are rarely this substantial. While the surface bubbles with smart-ass commentary on everything from Hillary Clinton's fashion tips to the O. J. trial (Denise wrote a bestselling true crime book on the subject) to her kids' fascination with the David Letterman show (on moving day "their job as 12-and-13-year-olds was to act weary, bored, and jaded, so they sublimated their excitement by torturing me. I told them to just dismantle the Kurt Cobain shrines and start packing boxes.")

She gives us Washington, D.C., and the celebrity circuit with great little cameos: "[I'd] stood in the elevator next to Jeremy Irons, who smiled right at me and stared right through [my husband]. He was wearing a tuxedo, of course, because he's British and doesn't know any better." The trouble is, 360 pages of such froth and pith and piffle might begin to pall on some readers, like a eating a four-course meal where every course is banana cream pie.

But when Smith gives us the murder investigation in New Caxton, Rhode Island -- a small town devastated by economic hard times -- her tone manages to grow serious, even occasionally melancholy, without losing any plot momentum -- or any of the wonderful smart-ass surface of her style. And in the course of the last act in particular, she deals in a fetchingly modern way with issues such as raising children, dealing with a bad marriage, finding some kind (any kind) of meaning within a relatively privileged life, and surviving in today's publishing world (she makes some hilariously nasty points).

Smith's first four books were seriocomic literary novels. The skills she honed in those books are easy to find here. While the almost too-bright narrator could easily be narcissistic in the way of too many literary novels, she has a great grasp of the world around her, and her wit is her protection against it. Smith even risks making the heroine less than admirable a few times in the book -- the kind of character twist that makes editors lose sleep. This is, after all, the era of white hats versus black hats. But Smith and her heroine are too smart for that.

An American Killing is easily one of the best suspense novels of the year. Smith excels at character, plotting, and social observation. In other words, so far as I can see, she can do it all. I assume -- and hope -- that this is the first of a series. Denise Burke is just too damned appealing a sleuth to say goodbye to.

I also assume there's a movie in the works. Just please not Julia Roberts in the lead. Please.

What we have here is the debut of a major-major crime novelist.

--Ed Gorman

Ed Gorman's latest novels include Cold Blue Midnight, Harlot's Moon, and Black River Falls, the latter of which "proves Gorman's mastery of the pure suspense novel," says Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. ABC-TV has optioned the novel as a movie. He is also the editor of Mystery Scene Magazine, which Stephen King calls "indispensable" for mystery readers.

Kirkus Reviews
A mostly entertaining whodunit featuring Denise Burke, a spunky, '`pathologically cynical,' bestselling true-crime journalist poking into a triple murder that exposes the sordid secrets of a philandering U.S. Congressman. Stepping away from the tormented New England eccentrics of her previous novels, (Masters of Illusion, 1994), Smith introduces a likely series character: a have-it-all woman writer who is so fabulously successful (her book on the O.J. Simpson case was not only the biggest seller of the pack, she boasts, but she even let Dominick Dunne crib from her notes) and so close to Capitol Hill, thanks to White House policy-advisor husband Nick, that Hillary Clinton has extended a standing invitation to babysit her kids.

Coming off her O.J. book, Burke follows up on a tip from womanizing bachelor Congressman Owen Hall about Eddie Baines, a black man who might have been falsely convicted of murdering the Montevallo family in the decaying factory town of New Caxton, Rhode Island. Burke leaves a note for her perfect kids and perpetually preoccupied husband at their home in Alexandria, reopens her beautifully rustic family beach house in Connecticut, and discovers violent, sadly pathetic tragedy lurking in the shadows off Main Street. Meanwhile, a sexy affair blossoms between Burke and Hall, whose interest in her investigation becomes ominous. Before Hall can stop Burke from probing further, he winds up dead in a prostitute's bed. Burke's eventual discovery—that the lives of the high and mighty are inexorably tangled among the low and the weak—is no surprise. The story's appeal is in the author's coyly drawn friends, such as the vampish FBI agent Poppy Rice andthe sullen small-town newspaper columnist Leo Schatz, and in her dizzy take on the glittering life of a celebrity journalist who can't see the evil in her own backyard. Frothy fun that, when the narrator isn't gossiping about the Clintons or prattling about her fictitious successes, offers numerous compassionate glimpses of dead-end small-town life.

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.32(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.18(d)

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