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Marilyn StasioThe Dead Detective is William Heffernan's first novel in seven years, and wherever he's been, he hasn't forgotten how to write a good, gritty police procedural.
—The New York Times
His fellow officers think Harry Doyle speaks a dead language. Close.
When Harry was ten, and his brother Jimmy six, their mother decided to murder them—an act required, she explained, because she'd asked God to "deliver her sons to His heavenly peace." Jimmy checked out as planned, but at the last possible moment, Harry was dragged back to life by a couple of CPR-savvy Tampa patrolmen. Years later, a sardonic colleague nicknames Harry, now a cop, the "dead detective," and it sticks. He proves a natural, cracking cases at an impressive rate. In the homicide unit of the Pinellas County (Florida) sheriff's department, conventional wisdom maintains that the dead detective converses with the deceased, and in a sense he does. Staring down at the corpse of Darlene Beckett, for instance, he can lock onto the disbelief that preceded terror at the instant of her death. It's as if she's found a posthumous way to communicate a sequence of emotions only Harry is privy to. As it turns out, Darlene Beckett's is no ordinary case. Stunningly beautiful, she was also infamous, a convicted child-abuser. Harry, of course, has a special, painfully complex connection to that kind of woman. Will it help or hinder him now?
After a lengthy hiatus, Edgar-winner Heffernan (A Time Gone By, 2003, etc.) makes a welcome return. Though the plotting shows some rust here and there, tough, troubled Harry Doyle will keep readers in line.
Harry looked beyond the edge of the road where he had parked his car. The prison was set in a patch of Central Florida wilderness. In every direction thick scrub land and swamp met his eye. It would be hard territory to cross, filled with all manner of danger. A game warden had once told him that anyone walking through a patch of Florida wilderness would pass no less than one hundred venomous snakes per mile traveled, and while most would try to get out of the way, sooner or later you would meet one that could not or would not. There would also be countless gators in the deeper swamps, and while the patches of dry open land would hold scorpions and fire ants, the thicker woods would offer up a variety of creatures you wouldn't care to meet unarmed, even the occasional Florida panther, black bear, or wild boar.
Harry took a long drag on his unfiltered Camel and ground out the butt in an overflowing ashtray. It was his fourth cigarette since he'd arrived. He had given up smoking five years ago, and had only smoked on this one day every year since.
When he looked back at the prison he noticed two guards standing just inside the main gate staring back at him. After a few minutes, the gate opened and one of the guards walked slowly toward Harry's car. He was a tall, angular man with a large nose and thin, pinched lips. He looked to be about twenty-five and he walked a bit stiffly, as if he were tightly wound and ready to react. His hand was on the butt of his holstered Glock automatic. It was a touch of hoped for intimidation that almost made Harry smile.
Harry lowered the window on the driver's side. The guard stopped, his eyes scanning what he could see of the car's interior. They settled on the police radio.
"You a cop?" the guard asked.
Harry raised his shield and credential case. The guard bent over to look at it more closely.
"Pinellas County," he said, a slight grin coming to his lips. "That don't carry a lot of weight out here in the boonies." There was a smirk on his face that Harry didn't like; an unearned arrogance. Harry was six-one, with enough lean, well-conditioned muscle to fill out a fairly large frame, and he had little compunction about using it. People often misjudged him. He had craggy features that made him seem a bit older than his thirty-one years, wavy brown hair and soft green eyes that made him appear almost docile. It was a misconception that usually disappeared as soon as Harry opened his mouth.
"I guess you didn't hear me," the guard snapped. He shifted his weight and tightened his grip on the butt of his weapon, clearly irritated by Harry's lack of response. "I said that Pinellas County don't carry a lot of weight out here."
Harry studied the man's name tag. It said, L. Bottoms. "What's the "L" stand for?" he asked.
The guard hesitated, uncertain if an answer might cost him control of the situation. Finally, he gave in. "Leroy," he said, accenting the second syllable of his name.
Harry nodded. When he spoke it was in a slow, soft, well-modulated voice. "Well, Le-roy, how much weight would it carry if I got out of my car, took hold of that Glock you keep playing with, and shoved it eight inches up your ass?"
Leroy's jaw dropped, and his face paled. Then he began to stammer. "Now wait ... now wait ... a ... a damn minute."
"No, you wait, Le-roy. Then you turn your skinny ass around and get back to work. I showed you my tin and that's all you need to see. So, fuck off. And fuck off fast."
"Well ... well ... fuck you too," Leroy snapped. He hesitated, trying to decide what to do. Then he cursed Harry once more, made a quick pivot, and headed back toward the main gate.
Harry watched him walk away. Leroy seemed a little deflated at first. Then he stiffened his back and added a bit of swagger. Harry assumed it was a touch of bravado for the other guard who was still watching from inside the gate.
Ten minutes later another figure emerged from the gate. He was tall and slightly overweight, the bulge of a belly hanging over his belt, and he wore lieutenant bars on his shirt collar. His name was Walter Lee Hollins and Harry had known him for more than ten years.
"How ya doin', Harry?" he offered as he reached the car window.
"I'm good, Walter Lee, how about yourself?"
"Tolerable. Better on days when I don't have to put up with assholes like Leroy. He give you a hard time?"
"He was just playing badass, and I just wasn't in the mood."
"Shouldn't have to be. Not once you showed him your tin. You did, right?"
Harry nodded. "He saw the police radio and asked. So I showed him."
"That's what I figured. Anyways, he's makin' a big stink."
"Oh, no, he knows better'n that. He's talkin' to the captain. He's new, and on the young side, and almost as stupid as Leroy. Just thought I'd warn you to expect to hear about it."
Harry nodded again. "Thanks, Walter Lee."
"Oh, and in case you were wonderin', your mama's still inside, still healthy. You ever change your mind about wantin' to see her, I can arrange it to happen out of the way and real quiet."
Harry nodded but said nothing, and Walter Lee gave the top of the car a light rap and headed back toward the prison.
Harry watched him go; then turned his attention back to the surrounding landscape. Little had changed in all the years he had come here, which was exactly as he wanted it to be. He came once each year, always on the anniversary of his brother Jimmy's murder. He never saw his mother on any of these visits. He only saw the place where she was caged. It was a necessary trip; one that only he could make. He had lived and Jimmy had not. On his way home he would stop at Jimmy's grave and tell him that their mother was still behind bars.
"I'll make sure she stays there, Jimmy," he would promise, as he did each year. "I'll make sure she's there until she's dead."
Harry Santos and his brother Jimmy died on June 7, 1985, on a hot, humid Florida morning. The boys were ten and six years old and on the morning of their deaths they were seated in the kitchen of their home waiting for their mother to join them at the breakfast table. Jimmy, the youngest and the family clown, was imitating their three-year-old next-door neighbor who sang the same song day after day while playing in his backyard. It was a simple, childish song about a spider and a water spout, but Jimmy's hand gestures and facial expressions perfectly mimicked the three-year-old and produced gales of laughter from his older brother Harry. Across the kitchen their mother Lucy smiled at their antics. Then she turned her back to them and began crushing four sleeping pills into a fine powder. She divided the powder, put equal amounts into two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, and brought the glasses to the table. Twenty minutes later, when the boys were unconscious, Lucy dragged them into the garage and placed them on the floor side-by-side next to the exhaust pipe of her five-year-old Chevrolet. As both boys slept she carefully folded their hands across their chests, placed small silver crosses on their foreheads, and covered their eyes with hand towels, then stood quietly for a moment, viewing the scene she had created. Slowly, a look of pleasure crept into her eyes and she turned and walked quickly to the car, opened the driver's-side door, slipped inside, and started the engine. Finished, she went back into the house and closed the door to the garage behind her. After placing a folded towel at the base of the door to confine the exhaust fumes, she smiled again, collected her Bible, and walked the two short blocks to the evangelical church she attended each Sunday. There, she prostrated herself on the floor of the altar, just below a large stained-glass window depicting the three crosses of Golgotha, and asked God to deliver her sons to His heavenly peace.
While Lucy was praying an elderly neighbor walked past her house, heard the car running inside the garage, and became concerned. He knocked on the front door and after getting no response, hurried home and called 911. Two patrol cops arrived at the scene minutes later and forced their way into the garage. They found Harry and Jimmy just as their mother had left them and carried them outside. Both boys had stopped breathing and neither had a heartbeat. The two officers called for emergency service backup and immediately began CPR. Harry, who was big for his age, was brought back to life before the EMTs arrived. Jimmy, who was much smaller and quite frail, never regained consciousness.
When she returned home from church, Lucy Santos was arrested and charged with the murder of her son Jimmy, and the attempted murder of her son Harry. Under questioning she admitted drugging the boys, placing them on the floor next to her car, and starting the engine. She told the arresting officers that she was making sure her sons would be waiting for her in heaven. When asked why, she said that June 4 had been her thirty- third birthday, as if that alone explained her actions. A psychiatrist hired by Lucy's court-appointed attorney theorized that Lucy, as a devout Christian, believed that Jesus Christ had been crucified, died, and was buried shortly after his thirty-third birthday, and then had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven three days later. He said Lucy believed that God had chosen her to follow that exact same path, and that she had not wanted to abandon her sons to the care of strangers.
The state's attorney, who was eyeing a future run for governor, told the press that he wasn't buying any of it, and announced that he would seek the death penalty and would have ten-year-old Harry testify that his mother had been perfectly rational in the days—even the hours—leading up to the murder. Harry, who was now in state custody, became an instant media darling. Reporters swooped in like seagulls at a picnic, easily manipulating the child into a series of sensational quotes. The few child welfare workers who tried to intervene were pushed aside by the state's attorney, who insisted that Harry was under the protective custody of his office. With that door opened wide, the media played its part and gave the state's attorney just what he wanted. The initial headline in the St. Petersburg Times read: Ten-Year-Old Ready to Put Mom on Death Row, while the Tampa Tribune intoned: Harry Says Killer Mom Must Die.
After the initial barrage of outrageous quotes and comments, the story made its way to the back pages and a year passed in relative quiet before the case was ready for trial. By that time, closely held psychiatric evidence had begun to build indicating that Lucy Santos was insane. Two days before the trial was set to begin, the state's attorney held a press conference with Harry at his side. There, surrounded by the media, he announced that a plea bargain had been reached that would send Lucy to prison for the rest of her natural life. Harry, now eleven, was asked how he felt about the decision and the fact that he would not have to testify against his mother. The young boy, well coached by prosecutors, stared back at the reporters with very lost, very empty eyes and told them that he had been prepared to testify. Then he paused, and in words that had not been scripted for him, said: "I just want to be sure my mother never gets out of prison."
Three weeks after his mother was sentenced, the county agency that had taken charge of Harry placed him in permanent foster care. The foster family's name was Doyle. The father, John—Jocko to his friends—was a sergeant with the Clearwater Police Department. The mother, Maria, was a Cuban exile, who ran her home with endless amounts of love, and the efficiency of a Marine drill instructor. There were no other children, and after two years Jocko and Maria Doyle petitioned the courts to adopt Harry and make him their son. Harry had no objection and the courts saw no reason to deny the request. Harry had never known his father, he was simply a man he vaguely remembered who had occasionally come into his mother's life, remained awhile, and then left again. They had never married and by the time Jimmy was born he was gone for good.
Harry remained with the Doyle's for eleven years. Over time he learned to care for them, but he never allowed himself to love them, or to look on them as his parents. His affection tended more toward respect and gratitude for the care and love they had generously given him. Trust was never an issue for Harry. Throughout the time he lived with them, Harry Santos Doyle never went to sleep without first locking his bedroom door.
Excerpted from THE DEAD DETECTIVE by WILLIAM HEFFERNAN Copyright © 2010 by William Heffernan. Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted October 8, 2010
I can't be as generous as saharatea is in her excellent review here. I agree with much of what she says, but the early telegraphing of who the killer is spoiled much of the suspense for me. The Dead Detective's new female partner is supposed to be up from sex crimes and have a lot of experience, but she often comes across as a real dimwit. The characters are interesting for the most part, but the two ministers underneath the Reverend Waldo are not very credible characters for those roles. So it is really 3 and one-half stars for me here.
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Posted September 28, 2010
Classic old-school detective work: I hadn't realized how much I missed it until I read this new novel from Akashic Press. I'd heard Heffernan was good, and I'm sorry I waited so long to read one of his titles. Everything about this crime novel speaks to the traditional style of 'whodunit' mysteries: it has an ensemble cast of police characters (the high-level brass is a bit stereotypical), an intelligent criminal, and a string of intersecting events that complicate the search for the killer. Best of it all, it has a badass detective who isn't simply a genius, but rather a team-player with a special sensitivity for victims and with insight on human nature.
Harry Doyle is The Dead Detective, a nickname he acquired when his past caught up with his career as a policeman. As a child, his mother attempted to murder him and his brother, and only Harry was able to be resuscitated. Adopted by a policeman, he grew up with understandable hatred for his mother and a desire to help other victims. He appears to sense details that others overlook. He also has a somewhat unique ability, for an accomplished detective, to keep both superiors and underlings happy.
The case in this novel, which I hope is the beginning of a series, is about an infamous female schoolteacher, a pedophile who preyed on a teenage student. Her murder early on is mysterious, as she was supposed to be under house arrest. The location of the crime scene, as well as further murders that may be related all create a twisted web for the detectives to unravel. Harry guides a team to the solution, all the while dealing with the impending parole of his mother (who happens to be intent on finishing her work of killing Harry). This is a smart and, at times, snarky novel that makes you hope Harry Doyle reappears with another case to solve.
That said, I had a few technical difficulties with the book. Small things really, but they did distract me a bit from the narrative in a few places. One was early on when a significant witness is being questioned about her friendship with the victim. Despite the detective's focus, she never asks what or if anything happened to her friend, which didn't ring true. It seems that at that moment, her response would have been to ask what was going on. Her lack of curiosity struck me as 'off'. The other problem I had was an element of foreshadowing that became too obvious-the author repeats, quite often, that the murderer could be right amongst them. Too much information, and I'm not sure why the novel needed that not-so-subtle clue. In any case, these distractions are not significant enough to ruin a really great crime story.
Posted November 9, 2010
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Posted November 28, 2011
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Posted February 16, 2011
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