Mr. White's Confession

( 4 )

Overview

Edgar® Award Winner for Best Novel and Winner of the PNBA Best Fiction Book of the Year

"As thrilling as it is unnerving . . . Could have been written by Dashiell Hammett or James Crumley—at their best."—Greil Marcus, Esquire

St. Paul, Minnesota, 1939. A grisly discovery is made. On a hillside, the dead body of a beautiful dime-a-dance girl is found, and an investigation opens. Assigned to the case is Police Lieutenant Wesley Horner, a man...

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Overview

Edgar® Award Winner for Best Novel and Winner of the PNBA Best Fiction Book of the Year

"As thrilling as it is unnerving . . . Could have been written by Dashiell Hammett or James Crumley—at their best."—Greil Marcus, Esquire

St. Paul, Minnesota, 1939. A grisly discovery is made. On a hillside, the dead body of a beautiful dime-a-dance girl is found, and an investigation opens. Assigned to the case is Police Lieutenant Wesley Horner, a man troubled and alone after his wife's recent death, a man with his own demons. He soon narrows his sights on Herbert White, an eccentric recluse and hobby photographer with a fondness for snapping suggestive photographs of the dime-a-dance girls. As Horner discovers, White is also a man with no memory, who must record his life in detailed journal entries and scrapbooks. For every interrogation Horner has, Herbert White has few answers, pushing the murder investigation into unknown territory and illuminating the complex relationship between truth and fiction, past and present, faith and memory.

 

Winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A pulsing tale of redemption and original goodness."—Pico Iyer, Time

"Strong, brooding . . . Clark's most striking achievement is Herbert's ambiguity, making it appear at once vulnerable and threatening."—Dan Cryer, Newsday

"A novel of substance . . . reveals the subtlety of [Robert Clark's] artistry and the profundity of his vision.”—Merle Rubin, The Wall Street Journal

"The long ruminations of Mr. White . . . give the book its intensity and mystery."—The New Yorker

Charles Taylor

Everything about Mr. White's Confession is in flux — the story, the setting, even the author's style. What begins as an atmospheric hard-boiled crime yarn ends up as something much more mysterious and unsettling. Clark steadily builds up an all-but-overwhelming sense of dread, a certainty that the worst we fear will arrive on schedule — only to pull the rug out from under us.

St. Paul, Minn., in 1939, the place and time the book opens, has a ghost-town feel. The characters are part of the crowds on the streets or riding the buses, at the movies or eating at the local White Castle; they could be the last people on earth. "Today passed uneventfully," one character writes in his journal, "although I varied my routine somewhat, leaving the house earlier than usual and walking down the Lawton Steps to catch the Grand Avenue streetcar instead of my regular route." The proprietor of a dime-a-dance hall talks about how times are getting better. It doesn't feel that way. As Pennies from Heaven did, Mr. White's Confession presents a world of shabby, middle-class gentility perched on top of awful secrets.

Someone is murdering St. Paul's dime-a-dance girls, and both evidence and instinct lead the police to Herbert White. An odd loner with a Humpty Dumpty build and a faulty memory (he can recall things that happened years before, but the recent past is a blur), Herbert spends hours on his journal and scrapbook, trying to record the events he knows will soon slip from his mind. He's also drawn to pretty women, writing fawning fan letters to his favorite starlet and photographing dance-hall girls in demure poses. Herbert's doughy politeness, his remove from the world, seems at first a cover for an overage virgin's boiling hostility. But as Herbert goes from born culprit to born patsy, even that transformation doesn't take the full measure of his character, the way his infuriating obstinacy, his inability to perceive more than what's in front of him, signifies a kind of decency and integrity, even though that failure prevents him from saving himself.

Clark's slowly unfolding irony is that each character shares something of Herbert's myopia, and they're even less able to save themselves. The dime-a-dance girls, the cops working the case, a teenage runaway who becomes both the wife and daughter one cop has lost — all of them remain essentially isolated. And that realization, breaking like a slow wave across the length of the book, leaves a chill that persists.

At times, Clark's approach feels less unpredictable than unformed. He's using genre borrowings for a novel more fluid and resonant than genre conventions usually allow, and it's not a seamless blend. (His conscientiously descriptive prose occasionally seems too fancy for the material, an attempt to put on airs.) But the book's elusiveness pulls you in. The mystery of who killed the girls has a solution that's obvious early on; the mystery of where Clark's characters are headed has no easy solution, though their destinations seem obvious. The unexpected compassion he shows his characters is finally much more unsettling than the irreversible fates we're certain await them. Maybe that has something to do with their refusal to stay boxed up within a genre. By the end of Mr. White's Confession, they've traveled awfully far, and awfully close.
Salon

Greil Marcus
Clark plays tricks with the conventions of genre. He offers the illusion of distance and safety and ends up producing a sense of displacement so shivery and complete that the result is as thrilling as it is unnerving.
Esquire
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
By opening with a long epigraph from St. Augustine's Confessions (in the original Latin, no less), Clark's ambitious, atmospheric rumination on good, evil and the gray area in between announces intentions far loftier than those of the standard dime-store detective novels to which the book bears an intentional but superficial resemblance. Set in St. Paul, Minn., in the bleak winter of 1939, this high-brow thriller retains enough lowdown grit and grime to qualify as both a suspenseful read and a surprisingly touching character study. When two young "dime-a-dance" girls are murdered, tough-as-nails homicide cop Lieutenant Wesley Horner hones in on eccentric recluse and amateur photographer Herbert White as the prime suspect. Looking like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and Paul Bunyan, and equally obsessed with Hollywood starlet Veronica Galvin and the voluminous scrapbooks and journals he keeps in order to compensate for his (narratively convenient) memory loss, White takes the fall with sympathetic dignity: astute readers will have fingered the real culprit many pages earlier. The true mysteries here are psychological: Horner's morally suspect relationship with teenage drifter Maggie is particularly fascinating. Having previously written a biography of James Beard (The Solace of Food), a cultural history of the Columbia River (River of the West) and a critically lauded first novel (In the Deep Midwinter), Clark here seesaws, most often successfully, between hard-boiled cliches and an earnest, self-conscious concern with the natures of memory and love.
Library Journal
Is solitary eccentric Herbert White involved in the murders of two young women, or is his short-term memory failure really pathological, as he claims? As in the author's acclaimed first novel (In the Deep Midwinter, LJ 12/96), this psychological mystery is set in Minnesota in the mid-20th century. Wesley Horner is a seemingly hardened police lieutenant with a tragically fragmented family. The triumph of his pursuit and capture of pitiful suspect Herbert is cut short, however, when Horner's new sweetheart thinks that the man might be innocent. Fellow officer Welshinger is a bit too conscientious in extracting a confession from White. Damning evidence telegraphs to the reader the identity of the real murderer, since the real point is not whodunit but whether or not the truth will emerge. A literary treat for procedural fans, this belongs in all libraries.--Margaret A. Smith, Grace A. Dow Memorial Lib., Midland, MI
Pico Iyer
A pulsing tale of redemption and original goodness.
Time Magazine
Dan Cryer
Strong, brutal…Clark's most striking achievement with Herbert's ambiguity, making it appear at once vulnerable and threatening.
Newsday
Barbara McMichael
Complex…intriguing…a fascinating and timely journey in the American psyche
Seattle Times
Merle Rubin
A novel of substance…reveals the subtlety of [Robert Clark's] artistry and the profundity of his vision.
The Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Clark's second fictional slice of St. Paul history (In the Deep Midwinter, 1997) goes back to 1939 — and the most tender account of a sex-killing investigation you'll ever read. If it weren't for his size and his limping gait, making him look like an overgrown teddy bear, no one would ever notice Herbert White, an inoffensive clerk at Griggs-Horner whose only pleasures in life are the letters he writes to an indifferent Hollywood starlet; the copious journals he keeps as an attempt to compensate for his flawed memory — he can remember yesterday, and his childhood, but not much in between — and his photography sessions with the women he meets at the Aragon Ballroom. When one of his models, Carla Marie LaBreque (née Charlene Mortenson), is strangled, Homicide Lt. Wesley Horner questions White and even finds some promising evidence against him. But all too soon it's clear that the lead is a dead end; as the Aragon survivors agree, White couldn't harm a soul. But then a second Aragon dancer is found murdered, and witnesses place White at the scene. By this time, he can't remember meeting Wesley before; he certainly can't remember either killing or not killing Ruby Fahey; and he's a ready target for a bullying Vice cop who's eager to euchre him into a confession, sign Wesley's name as witness, and send him to prison for life. By the time Wesley, whose fragile romance with a teenaged runaway mirrors White's own stumbling attempts at intimacy, rouses himself on White's behalf, the story seems headed toward an inescapably melodramatic climax. But because Clark's true subject isn't the mystery of the Aragon dancers' murders (wound up in a brilliantly offhand sentence),but the sovereign power of memory to nurture desires that would otherwise never survive, his closing scenes amount instead to a transfiguration of his decent, tempest-tossed heroes. Despite its florid subject, then: a gently, powerfully moving demonstration of the ways, as White concludes, that "we are but memory enfleshed by love."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428129
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 723,305
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Clark is the author of In the Deep Midwinter, My Grandfather's House, River of the West, and The Solace of Food. He lives in Seattle with his wife and two children.

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First Chapter


Chapter One

PART I

CITY OF THE WORLD

    THE FIRST TIME WESLEY HORNER SAW HIM WAS AT THE White Castle near Seven Corners, where Wesley was drinking coffee with his partner. He sat, balding and rotund, on his stool, like an egg in an eggcup, and ate three hamburgers, removing the pickle slices and stacking them on the saucer of his coffee cup. He ate slowly, delicately. His hands were fine but fleshy, the fingers arching as they took up the last hamburger, the coffee cup, and then the homburg from the counter. Then he rose, bobbing heavily, steadily upward, like wreckage surfacing on the sea, nodded to the waitress, and laid a quarter down, shyly waving away his change. He gathered up his parcels--a sack from the St. Paul Book & Stationery Company and a flat, rectangular Kodak-yellow box--and shambled to the door, his body moving as if in two unsynchronized halves, a donkey cart with mismatched wheels.

    Wesley, on his stool, spun himself around to the big plate-glass window and watched him walk down the street toward the base of the hill on which the cathedral sat among the elms, their leaves amber and russet. Then Wesley looked over to his partner. O'Connor rolled his eyes and jerked his head slowly upward in a gesture of lugubrious disdain. "Sheesh," he said. "What a gimp!"

    "Mighty peculiar," Wesley assented.

    "Retard?"

    "Maybe. Or a half-wit."

    "Pansy?" O'Connor's eyes were big, amused, pressing Wesley for a conclusive judgment.

    "Could be, Sergeant, could be," Wesley said wearily, refusing to be drawn. He tugged down on the brim of his fedora as though reckoning with a persistent itch. Then he and O'Connor sat in the window together, looking out, watching.

    Wesley shook out the last cigarette from his pack, struck a match on the underside of the stool, and drew the flame to his face and the smoke into his chest. He pulled on his hat brim again, and the brim angled down in line with his long, fierce nose, his incredulous chin, the landslide of his face. Smoke spumed from his nostrils like water from a sluice.

    He twisted the empty cigarette pack with his hands until it was taut, and then he threw it on the floor by his feet. He and O'Connor got up to leave, to go out and see what the street and the cooling air of dusk could tell them, and the cigarette pack lay on the oyster-tiled floor and even as they were leaving began to unknot itself with an imperceptible rustle of cellophane, green and writhing like a rupturing cocoon.

Friday, September 29, 1939
    I am beginning a journal in this book today. I suppose that is self-evident, but this is how it happened, as best I can recall. After work (Mr. Wright said I could go, that the filing was all done, that there was nothing else for me today) I went to the stationery store to buy a new scrapbook, the same kind I always buy, the Ideal No. 51. The clerk told me they were out and they would be for some time. Needless to say, I was somewhat distraught, for this is the model of scrapbook I have been using since I was ten, since 1914, since the beginning of the Great War. It is no small matter, for this is how I know what has happened to me and to the world. It is my memory, so to speak, since I am not very good at remembering on my own.
    In any event, I decided to make the best of a bad lot, and I told the clerk to show me what else they had. I ended up purchasing an Ideal No. 6, a larger model, with a spine strung with black cord and pages that can take nearly a whole newspaper broadsheet without folding. I was so pleased with this purchase that I had the clerk show me some writing books I had noticed, because I thought: Why should I not record a few thoughts and memories myself, rather than rely wholly on the newspaper and magazine clippings? Mr. Wright says I have a fine hand (the last of the copperplates, he calls me) and that I am well-spoken. It is only for myself, although I cannot but hope that as with the scrapbooks, someday what I record might perhaps be of some historical interest in its own small way, rather like the time capsule they have buried at the World's Fair in New York. Surely we are living in exciting times, on the verge of great things!
    So I bought the Ideal No. 24, with cream pages ruled in green. The cover is like marble, black and white swirled up together like thunderheads and milk, like the top of the washstand in my room at Nanna's. I am going to try to write every day, Nanna said I wrote like Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom we often used to read together. When she tried to enroll me at the Academy, they said I composed English as though it were Latin, which I would have thought a fine thing, since I knew no Latin and still know none. But I am not so sure that the masters at the Academy viewed it that way, or at least they suggested it might be best that I continue to be schooled at home.
    After I bought the scrapbook and the writing book, I treated myself to supper at the White Castle. I had coffee and hamburgers, three of them, I think, for even now I am feeling well fed and content.

In the violet dawn light of Saturday morning, her red hair was deep as blue neon, and her skin was silvery white, except at the bottom of her body, where the blood had settled and colored her scarlet and brown and copper green. By the time the police came--alerted by a neighbor who heard the baying of the derelict who'd stumbled across her body in the weeds--a breeze had started up and the sun was full on the hillside. Her rayon dress was gathered up above her waist, and sometimes the hem brushed her neck and slithered in the wind. A garter stay, unsheathed from her stocking, luffed like a ship's pennant and slapped her leg.

    Wesley and O'Connor came about ten o'clock, crunching through the dry grass and shattered leaves and blasted milkweed pods to the level spot where she lay. The coroner, Dr. Nash, was there with two patrolmen. He was kneeling on the ground and holding her chin, turning her face toward him and then away, regarding her neck intently. He stood up and brushed off his knees and looked at Wesley.

    "Know anything yet?" Wesley asked. Nash sputtered out a long breath with his lips and wiped his forehead. O'Connor was crouching on his haunches two feet from her body, and he began to sift the dirt and the loose stones with his fingers.

    "I don't think she's been here long," Nash said. "Hasn't been dead long, for that matter. Maybe only since early this morning."

    "How?"

    "How did she die? It looks like she was hit on the side of the head and then throttled." Nash knelt again and drew his finger over the crimson and lavender arc that ran around her neck.

    "All done here, or someplace else?"

    "I couldn't say. If it was done someplace else, it would have to be close by, given how recently the death must have occurred."

    O'Connor stood, holding some rocks in his hand. He gestured up the slope. "You'd have to be pretty strong to carry a deadweight into here."

    "You'd have to be pretty strong to have strangled her in the first place," said Nash. Wesley nodded.

    O'Connor held out his hand. "Fossils," he said. "In the rock. Little cylinder-type things with rings around them. And seashells and little horseshoe crab things no bigger than your thumbnail."

    "Trilobites," said Nash, and he took one of the rocks from O'Connor's hand. "Caught in the limestone." He gestured around and out, down toward the flat and the river. "All this was underwater, at the bottom of the sea."

    Wesley was still looking up to where the street was and to the head of a set of pedestrian steps leading down the hill to another street below. "So she could have been knocked out and strangled and then carried here. He must have used the steps and then cut over to here--too steep to have brought her straight down. And he'd have to be nuts to have carried her all the way up."

    "I'd think it goes without saying he was nuts," Nash interjected. "I'm assuming when we get her downtown we'll see signs of some kind of sexual violation, judging from the clothes and so forth."

    Wesley was still looking out toward the steps, as though watching for someone to descend. "He didn't have to be nuts. I'm not sure they're ever nuts; maybe just evil. In the bone." Wesley stopped for a moment. "Or this is just what they like to do, and it's all very planned and reasonable, like it's a job or a hobby--a pastime, like collecting stamps or something."

    "That's an interesting view, Lieutenant Homer," said Nash with a bemused smile.

    Wesley turned around to face him. "So we'll come see you around, say, four this afternoon, and you'll know a little more maybe?" Nash nodded.

    "Okay," Wesley said, and then he called out to the two patrolmen. "You guys figure out how to get her downtown. I don't see you getting a gurney in here. Use some blankets or something. When she goes downtown with Dr. Nash, one of you stays here with Sergeant O'Connor. Start searching--all around here and up to the street and all along the steps. Maybe you'll find whatever he hit her with. Maybe a handbag, some clothing." Wesley looked down at her body. There was a cordon of tiny ants moving through her hair toward the wound above her ear. "Has she got shoes? No, she doesn't. Why hasn't she got any goddamned shoes? Maybe you'll find the shoes. Or maybe he's got the shoes. Anyway, now we know she didn't walk in here, don't we? He carried her. Or she walked in and then he killed her and he took the shoes with him, like a souvenir." He looked around at the patrolmen and at O'Connor and Dr. Nash. "One more thing. Nothing to the papers, not a word. Not until tonight, after the doctor's finished with her and maybe we know who she is."

Saturday, September 30, 1939
    Today passed uneventfully although I varied my routine somewhat, leaving the house earlier than usual and walking down the Lawton Steps to catch the Grand Avenue streetcar instead of my regular route. Mr. Wright had me go to the post office and fill some envelopes with some papers. I had an egg salad sandwich for lunch, which I ate in the concourse at Union Station. In the afternoon, on my way home, I went to the camera store and bought some chemicals for the darkroom. It was a sunny, slightly windy day, and I decided to walk all the way home.
    On the way, I had the notion to go into the cathedral. I am not a church member--particularly not of the Roman Church, which Nanna always insisted was nothing more than a cult of Irish laborers and superstitious ninnies. But I am always rather moved by the majesty of the building, and there is something of mystery--of perhaps the Orient--in the scent of the incense and the colored light and so forth. Anyway, I made a circuit of the passage running behind the main altar, where there are chapels dedicated to various saints, and on a whim I put a penny in a slot and lit one of those candles that sit in rows on a stand in little red glass jars. I don't really know why I did it, but I thought it could do no harm and perhaps might bring me luck in some form, or at least be a symbol of good intentions. I think my hands shook with some trepidation as I lit the candle, and I made a hasty exit, rather fearing that I might be accosted by one of the priests, who might object to my undertaking a practice reserved for members of the Roman faith or try to entice me into conversion. As I said, I told myself it was harmless at the very worst, and when I thought to myself about my candle, and of all the candles burning in the cathedral and in all the other churches around the world, I could not help but think that that is no small thing, all that light from those candles and the prayers and intentions or just whims that go with them.
    I believe the particular chapel I stopped in was dedicated to Saint Anthony of Padua. It had a statue of that saint in it, a monk of some kind holding a child in his arms and, I suppose, of Italian origin. Nanna had an Italian gardener when I was small. I cannot say that he ever carried me in his arms, but I am sure he once pushed me around the garden in his wheelbarrow.
    When I got home, I made myself a can of Hormel corned beef hash and another of Van Camp's lima beans, and then I worked in the darkroom on some prints from the rolls I took of Ruby from the Aragon Ballroom. Sometimes I notice that I feel very alone in the darkroom. It is quite dark, of course, and it is easy there to feel like a child shut in a closet, afraid of spooks. And of course when I look at a negative projected on the enlarger easel, with everything reversed, the people look like monsters and ghosts and it is not so hard to believe that I am looking at something real, at how things really are inside themselves, all ugly and inverted and just the opposite of how they normally seem. But then I become aware of my radio playing out in the hall, and I can hear the voices of the men, deep like Grandfather's, and the women, like birdsong, and I see the sliver of light under the doorway, and I know that I am inside my home and that what I see on the easel are only shadows--what things are before they are--and not how things truly are or ever shall be. For that comes about through the light of the enlarger onto the empty surface of the photographic paper and then in the tray where I watch the images become themselves like candles taking flame.
    Afterward, I worked on my scrapbook and my collections, and now, before I go to my bed, I am writing this and thinking how really very fine and good everything is.

That afternoon Wesley went to see Dr. Nash at the morgue on Hill Street, down by the tracks by the river. Nash was sitting at a little oak desk in a room with green and black tile and tall frosted windows set above eye level. There were two steel tables, shallowly recessed, with a drain at either end, and on one of them there was a body, covered with a faded light-green sheet.

    Wesley sat down at the desk and set his hat on the corner next to the telephone. "That her?" he asked Nash.

    Nash said, "Yes. I'm done. Just waiting for you to come before I put her in the cooler."

    "And?"

    "Not so fast, Lieutenant." Nash took a pony of rye whiskey and two glasses from the desk drawer. "It's been a long day. Have a drink."

    Wesley seemed to think for a minute. "Can I smoke?"

    "I don't think anyone here's going to object."

    "Okay, give me a drink. Can't drink without a smoke."

    Wesley lit a cigarette and Nash poured two shots. They drank. Wesley exhaled. "So?" he said.

    "She was a fine healthy girl. Probably not much over twenty-five. No other trauma than what we saw on the bluff. That surprised me."

    "She hadn't been ..."

    "Violated? There was semen, yes. But no sign of force."

    "But she was with someone close to the time of death?"

    "Oh, yes. Quite fresh. Deposited at the entrance to the vagina, though, rather than well inside."

    "So?" Wesley waved his cigarette and glanced around as though looking for an ashtray. "I can't put this on the floor...."

    "No, I wouldn't like that," Nash said, and pushed a kidney-shaped enamel dish across the desk toward him. "Anyway, the semen. The placement's consistent with rape, but there's no sign of force, as I said, no struggle, no fighting. So I'd guess it was just garden-variety premature ejaculation. That's Krafft-Ebing lingo for--"

    "Johnny on the spot?"

    "Exactly."

    "So she had sex with him and then he killed her," Wesley said. "Unless she had sex with one guy and then met the killer after. Get any sense that she might be a hooker? Clap scars, stuff like that?"

    "No. She wore a fair amount of makeup. But more in a theatrical way than anything cheap or lurid. She was a pretty girl, you know."

    Wesley nodded. "So they do it, and then maybe they fight. But he doesn't slap her around. He just knocks her out and kills her. Cool as a cucumber."

    "So you see it as premeditated."

    "How else is there to see it?"

    "Maybe it wasn't planned. Maybe he just did it. He makes love to her and then he feels sad. He feels remorse."

    "So he kills her to cheer himself up?"

    Nash looked annoyed. "No; because he can't bear what he's done."

    "He screws a pretty, willing girl and he can't bear it?"

    "Sometimes beauty is unbearable. It makes you sad. Sometimes people are sad after they make love," Nash said. "It's something poets have written about."

    "This guy was no poet. Just a cold-blooded bastard."

    "Well, I've given up trying to fathom the human heart. I've seen too many. I've seen too much."

    "So how do you ... bear this?" Wesley glanced around the room. The ceiling was high, with transparent bulbs dangling from it on braided cords.

    "Oh, this. This isn't unbearable."

    "Takes a strong stomach, I'd guess."

    Nash shrugged. "It's just life. Or what comes after. The residue. The footprints. That's why they call it pathology, my med school professor used to say. You're just following their path, trying to figure out which way they went, how they died." He unscrewed the pony and lapped what was left in it into their glasses. "That's how you lose your disgust, your fear of this. People think a body dead is really the same thing as a body alive, that it's still someone. But that's exactly what it lacks--being someone--and every second it's disintegrating, coming apart, being less and less, until it's nothing at all but some dust. So I can bear this. It makes me sad to think of the person a corpse used to be. Examining them, touching, I get intimations of who they were, or at least how they must have looked or maybe even moved, intimations of their beauty and their sufferings and all the rest that the body still carries."

    Wesley shook his head and then he nodded. "I should go. We need an identification. Someone ought to be missing her by now."

    Nash stood. "Do you want to see her? Before you go?"

    "Okay."

    Nash's shoes clicked and scuffed over the linoleum to the steel table, and he lifted the sheet and pulled it down. Wesley waved his hand as though fending off a blow. "You don't need to do that ...," he said.

    "It's okay, Lieutenant. She's not anyone anymore. You can't embarrass her."

    The girl's skin had grown darker, mottled as though the copper-green color was slowly wicking up through the rest of her body. Her breasts were small and freckled, her fingers curled loosely, her lips gapped and a sliver apart. Nash touched her head. "Beautiful hair," he said.

    But for the ring of purple around her neck and the wound above her ear, she might have been asleep, Wesley thought, but very, very cold. Her pallor was like a sheen of oil refracting a dozen shades of violet and indigo and green tending to orange as she darkened, as her body gave up the last of its heat. It was as if she were still dying and would be dying for a very long time, until she was dark and icy as a cinder. That was what Wesley saw, what he was watching happen. Every few moments he would find his eyes skittering uncontrolled down to her waist, drawn to the flame of her pubic hair, the lips that cleaved her mons, the well of sorrows and trouble that had brought her here. Wesley wanted to see her as a child, a frozen, drowned child, but his eyes wouldn't let him.

    "You can cover her up," he said. Nash was standing absentmindedly opposite Wesley, his fingers splayed like a pianist's on the table, next to the girl's shoulder. He looked down and then at Wesley with an expression like pity, not for the girl but in some way for Wesley himself. Then he drew the sheet up from the girl's feet and smoothed it with the flat of his hand over her head.

    Nash expected Wesley would say something about the disposition of the body between now and the time when, presumably, somebody would step forward to identify and claim it. But instead he went back to Nash's desk and picked up his hat and turned and faced Nash, holding the hat in front of his waist, and said, "I had a daughter about her age. She'd be twenty-three now."

    "I'm sorry. I didn't know. How long ago was it?" Nash said. "When she ...?"

    "Oh, we don't know that she's dead. She just disappeared. Or left, or something ..."

    "Or something?"

    "It was five years ago. She was supposed to have run off to Chicago with a man from the Hoover vacuum company. Or that was what her best friend thought. But we never heard anything from her, not a word. Never have. Never will, I suppose."

    "I'm sorry. Sometimes not knowing seems worse than--"

    "Worse than death? Well, it was the death of her mother. Got cancer a year after she'd gone, died a year after that."

    "I knew about that. But I'm awfully--"

    "You know what I don't understand--about my Louise or that one?" Wesley flung his arm out toward the table, and its shadow hung over the linoleum like a high, thin cloud. "Or any of them. I don't understand what gets into them or why they don't listen to their parents or their teachers or anybody with any sense. It just goes out the window, all for some lover boy or thinking they're going to go out to Hollywood or whatever. Breaking other people's hearts all along the way, without so much as a by-your-leave."

    Nash looked as though he were standing very far away. Finally he said, "It's a terrible mystery, isn't it?" and Wesley saw he was still standing next to the girl, with his hand by her head.

    Wesley hurried to excuse himself, pulling his hat on and tugging it down front and back with both hands. "Well, we'll let you know when there's an ID," he said, and he pushed through two sets of doors and into the long hallway, hung dimly with white, mushroom-shaped light globes down the center. It seemed to taper to an end in the far distance, and he could hear the echo of his own footsteps bouncing back to meet him, and his heart was a stone of dread he carried heavily before him. Because the truth was that here, in this empty, silent corridor, he could hear the winding down of the world, the guttering of its breath, feel the weight of its inexorable doom descending. It was what parents could not bring themselves to tell their children about. Perhaps if he'd told Louise, had he known then, she would have stayed. But then she could never have forgiven him for bringing her into such a place.

    He thought of the girl in the morgue and of her body, and he imagined her alive and all the things women did that she must have done and that were incomprehensible to him: how she might have sat brushing her hair in indolent strokes or painting her toenails, bent like a bird to a nest of fledglings; how her voice, her fingers, her eyebrows, might inflect themselves in a hundred subtleties, faint as prayers; how her dress would hang on her hips, how it might brush the back of her calves. In all this he saw how her beauty in life might have been as unbearable as her beauty in death and that even reduced to a naked corpse, marbled with cold and congealing blood, prodded and assayed by coroners and detectives, she remained unknowable, as lost to his ken as Louise. And although it was not an answer to any of the things he had been thinking about, he found himself speaking to the dead girl, saying, "For your sake, I'll find the bastard that did this."

    He was on the street and almost to his car when he was accosted by a man in a fedora and a suit with huge, pointed lapels. It was Farrell from the Dispatch, and Wesley did not want to deal with him, not now.

    Farrell smiled narrowly at Wesley, as though he'd caught him in a fib. "I hear you guys have something down here, something you're sitting on."

    "I can't say anything. Not now. Not yet."

    "You ought to fess up," Farrell said, and he held his palm up and regarded it as though he could see the dead girl's face in it. "They say confession is good for the soul."

    "I can't give you anything. There's things we don't know, people that have to be told. In the right way."

    "I hear a capital crime's been committed. I'd say the public had a right to know."

    "I can't help you, Farrell. I'm sorry."

    Farrell frowned as though he'd been disappointed over what was a reasonable and inconsequential request. "Well, Lieutenant, I'm sorry. But I can't stop my editor from doing what he feels is right by the public, can I?"

    Wesley exhaled tightly through his lips. "Look, Farrell. Give me until lunchtime tomorrow. Then I'll tell you everything we have."

    "Me and everybody else, I suppose."

    "Okay, okay. I'll hold the others off until five o'clock. It'll be all yours for the afternoon editions. That sound fair?"

    "Fair enough. I'll see you at noon at your desk. Just the two of us."

    Wesley nodded and watched Farrell stroll away with his hands in his pockets. Then Wesley slid into his car, bone weary. He lit a cigarette and sat with the windows rolled up, lost in the veils and palls of smoke.

Sunday, October 1, 1939
    Today I went to the pictures at the Paramount. The show was City of the World, with Veronica Galvin, who is undoubtedly my favorite actress. The newsreel was about nothing but the new war in Europe and whether we shall be drawn into it, President Roosevelt's assurances to the contrary. But that was all as nothing once the picture began. I consumed an entire roll of Necco wafers without so much as a thought, so caught up was I in the picture and so enraptured by Miss Galvin. She is, of course, a splendid actress, but I think it is her hair--which I gather from the magazines is auburn--that I find most compelling, the way it drapes her face and swings when she whirls around and says something passionate or tips her head forward to hide her eyes.
    I was going to stop and have an ice cream sundae at the fountain at the Rexall on the way home, but I felt compelled to rush back and record my thoughts here. It has occurred to me that I might kill two birds with one stone by writing directly to Miss Galvin--as I felt moved to do in any case--and composing the first draft here on these pages. I have written Miss Galvin before, and received a kind note and a signed photograph in reply. So here goes:

475 Laurel Avenue
Apartment B
St. Paul, Minnesota

Miss Veronica Galvin
Pantheon Pictures, Incorporated
Hollywood, California
Dear Miss Galvin,
    I have written you before, so perhaps you will recall my name. In any case, I have just returned from seeing City of the World and was instantly moved to take up my pen and tell you how superb was your performance in the role of Kit O'Dea. It was not merely a matter of your acting or, of course, your beauty, but of the way you penetrated to the heart of the character and brought out the deeper, philosophical meaning of her lines. I am thinking particularly of the scene just before the climax of the picture, when you say to your costar--and I think I recall the lines accurately--"Don't you see, Johnny, that you can't go on running, running from the G-men, from me, from every good thing we could have together. Because I just want the things every decent girl wants. Johnny, please, just tell me you want them too." Then, when he looks over to the window to see if the G-men have found you yet, and he moves toward the door and you understand that he's leaving, you look up at him and then cast your eyes down and flip your hair and say, "Oh, Johnny, you're such a chump, and I ... I've been such a fool."
    I found this scene extremely moving and meaningful, perhaps because, rather like Kit and Johnny, I've had to find my own way in the world. I don't know if I mentioned this in my previous letter, but I was an orphan. My mother died giving birth to me, and when the war began, in 1914, my father signed up with a Canadian regiment and was killed in Europe. I myself suffer from a few maladies associated with my difficult birth, chiefly having to do with my memory and the coordination of my muscles. I think I am considered a little bit odd.
    I mention this not to attract any sympathy but simply to say that I understand that we must make our own way in the world and that we must strive to see the good in it and in our lives and not resign ourselves to despair or cynicism or futility no matter what. When Johnny leaves you and goes up to the top of the peak and fights it out with the G-men who surround him and is gunned down (I must say, it seems to me that this is the fate of many of your leading men--I recall much the same denouement in Salton Sea and Rio Negro), it is because he does not understand this, unlike your character, Kit. He seems to believe the world is divided into realms of light and darkness and that he has no choices in it and that love can accomplish nothing in it.
    I think this is your finest performance since To Marry and To Burn, and I hope you will be acknowledged for it. It is certainly the equal of anything Miss Leigh did in Gone With the Wind earlier this year, a picture that I maintain does not speak nearly so well to our current concerns in the world. I hope you will be able to find a few moments to reply to me and perhaps give me your thoughts about these matters. I would be pleased to hear more of your personal philosophy of life, which I suspect may not be dissimilar to my own.

Assuring you of my devoted best wishes,
Yours sincerely,
Herbert W. White

I believe I should stop and copy this out onto letter paper immediately, while I remember to, and then go post it while it is still on my mind. It is a complicated business--I write things down in order to remember them, but then I must remember to read what I've written down. Fortunately, I don't have much of a problem with the things I am working on in the immediate moment or with the events of, say, the last week or so. And I can also recall the events of the distant past with great clarity. It is the middle distance that gives me difficulty--the things that have happened between the previous week and the previous year.

    I suppose this failing of my mind would be disconcerting for anyone, but I must say it can also be rather amusing, if seen in the right light. For example, not long ago--I don't recall precisely when--a salesman from the Hoover vacuum cleaner company called on me at home and persuaded me to purchase one of their new upright models, a brown one with a dust bag in fabric rather like Harris tweed. I thought he looked familiar, but I suppose I was carried off by his "sales patter" and general conviviality. He told me that when he returned home to Chicago, he would toast me and my purchase in the bar at the Palmer House Hotel.

    After he left, I thought I would put the new vacuum cleaner away in the hall closet. Well, imagine my surprise when I opened the door and beheld an identical vacuum cleaner already there, one I had presumably purchased sometime earlier and forgotten about. I assume that is why the salesman looked familiar. He must be a scoundrel, unless, perhaps, he has the same sort of memory difficulties as me. But if that were the case, I rather doubt he would be able to perform a salesman's duties.

    Needless to say, this sort of thing happens with some frequency Just yesterday I went to the selfsame closet, and when I opened it I found a pair of rather pretty women's shoes there, thrown in the back. I have no idea where they came from--presumably one of the girls I've had over for photography, Ruby or Clare or Gwendolyn. I think perhaps they get lost in their beauty just as I do, and then, like me, forget things.

[CONTINUES...]

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Reading Group Guide

About this Guide

The following author biography and list of questions about Mr. White’s Confession are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach Mr. White’s Confession.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 6, 2008

    quick read - long chapters

    very well written with some unexpected twists towards the end of the book.<BR/>Story deals with faith, trust, and friendships

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  • Posted November 5, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Not Enough...

    Clark¿s mystery set in St. Paul in the late thirties hits and misses. While the plot and setting fits together well, the characters: the hardboiled detective, the lonely waif and the seemingly innocent killer are little more than stereotypes. The final twenty pages of the novel could have been cut entirely and it still would have left me with more to ponder than the story¿s rushed conclusion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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    Posted October 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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