Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mr. White's Confession - A Review and a Giveaway

Mr. White's Confession by Robert Clark
Trade Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Picador (September 2, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 031242812X
ISBN-13: 978-0312428129

Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel, 1999

In the beginning, two police detectives are drinking coffee at a local White Castle when they happen to notice a bald, rotund, funny-looking man eating hamburgers at the counter. One of them muses that the odd-looking man sits on his stool "like an egg in an eggcup." That was only the first of many moments of pure enjoyment I have had from this murder mystery, which is much more than a whodunnit, and I am looking forward to many more, since I am only at about the halfway point in the novel.

It is late in the autumn of 1939, and St. Paul, Minnesota is still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression when the murdered body of a beautiful red-haired dime-a-dance girl is discovered on a hillside. Coincidentally, the investigation by the two detectives initially leads them to suspect Mr. White, the Humpty-Dumpty of a man they had noticed a week or so earlier at the White Castle.

Now, it turns out that Mr. White has a faulty memory ~ he cannot remember middle-distance events. He can recall in detail memories from his youth, and he is pretty good at remembering things that happened within the last day or so, but between that ~ nothing. As a substitute, he has devised various ways to keep track of his life: he is an avid photographer (particularly of dime-a-dance girls), and he keeps scrapbooks of his photos as well as newspaper articles of current events. On the day of his unknown encounter with the detectives at the White Castle, he had also decided to keep a diary. This diary becomes an integral part of the narrative and is, I think, the best part of Mr. White's Confession. In his diary, Mr. White's voice is formal and innocent and, most of all, blind to his own desires. In the first pages of his diary, recalling a visit by Ruby Fahey, one of the dime-a-dance girls he photographs, he writes: "She went back to my bedroom to change, and I must say I felt a huge sort of breathlessness at the idea that she was in my room shedding and then donning her garments, rather as if some mystery of great enormity were taking place right here in my humble quarters!"

The detective's portion of Mr. White's Confession seems to be a conscious parody of the hard-boiled Chandleresque detective novels, and occasionally it gets a little over-the-top, but overall it works to balance the almost dreamy ruminations of the diarist. So far, anyway.

September 26, 2008 ~ Review continued!
It is always exciting to find a good novel by an author whose work I haven't read before, but when that author is brand new, as in this is his first novel ever, well, that's nothing short of magical.

"Mr. White's Confession" is sort of a cross between a Chandleresque whodunnit and a noir fictional memoir. It tells the tale of an odd-looking and -acting young man who, mostly due to his strangeness, is suspected of murdering a young, beautiful dime-a-dance girl in 1939 during the Great Depression in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is not only socially inept and odd-looking, he has a memory disability. Because of his disability he keeps track of his life in journals and scrapbooks, and that makes up one part of the story. The part that focuses on the police investigation is told mostly through the eyes of the detectives, Lt. Wesley Horner, a chain-smoking, dogged, rough, but honest cop, and reads like a dime-detective novel from that era.
When the story begins, the two protagonists ~ Mr. White and Lt. Horner ~ are eons apart in personality and experience, but, as the novel continues, their lives begin to parallel each other.
I found Mr. White a sympathetic character, perhaps because he is also into photography, and I understood his descriptions of the photographic process and identified with his pleasure at watching an image appear from nothing. I also found his ruminations on the metaphorical aspects of photography as it relates to memory, love, life itself, really quite astute. I also sympathized with him for the way he was looked at ~ as a freak and a creep and even a murderer ~ only because he wasn't fashionable or good-looking. In this story, things got way out of hand because of that bias. I eventually started to like Lt. Horner too, rooting for his redemption when he made the decision that would result in a terrible loss, and feeling his pain over that loss when it occurred. I feel that the character of Lt. Horner grew as much as Mr. White's did until, by the end of the story, they both resembled the kind of quiet heroes the world needs more of but never really seems to appreciate fully.
The novel was a little slow in portions, but the writing itself was so good that it was always enough to keep me going until the pace would pick up again. Toward the end, maybe the last 50 pages or so, the story got so intense that I had to force myself to just keep reading and not skip to the end to see what happened. I did sort of figure out more or less who the murderer was, although it was never 100% certain, due to the ambiguities of Mr. White's faulty memory and everyone's intentional and unintentional falsehoods.

One other thing that bothered me (not about the novel but about one of the issues brought up in the story) was the way the criminal justice system in effect at the time could be so brutal and unfair. There were few of the checks that keep the system in line today, like the requirement for Miranda rights, the rights of the accused to representation and a fair trial by jury, the rights of a criminal not to be subjected to brutal, inhumane punishments, etc. While the criminal justice system today has flaws, they are nothing to what it was like back then. Some of the things that happened to some of the characters infuriated me, and I had to keep telling myself "it's only fiction," and "that was then, it's not like that here anymore."

Needless to say, I really enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to more from this author!
On October 1, a copy of "Mr. White's Confession" by Robert Clark will be raffled off to one lucky reader who leaves a comment below. Please be sure to include your email or blog address in your comment if you want to enter. Mention this contest on your own blog and add a link to the above post, and you'll be entered twice to win. (Open to U.S. and Canadian readers only.)


Sandra said...

This sounds interesting, I like stories set in this time period. Please enter me. Thank you.


iubookgirl said...

I would love to win this. I tried for it as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer, but didn't get it.


Katherine said...

I'd love to enter! Count me in.

katherineshuff [at] gmail [dot] com

bermudaonion said...

Please enter me!

bermudaonion said...

Whoops! My email is milou2ster[at]gmail[dot]com

Irene Yeates said... Edgar Award winner; count me in, please!!!


Kanadani said...

This sounds like a really interesting book. I'll have to check back for when you finish this book. Please enter me!

vvprice at gmail dot com

MonieG said...

What a great review. Please enter me to win. I've added your giveaway to my blog Reading With Monie. Thanks!
rocko (at) elp.rr (dot) com

geebee said...

What an interesting review! Loved your Humpty Dumpty reference! Please enter me - I have to read this book! Thank you.
geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com

Mary K. from L.A. said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments. Good luck with the drawing. I only wish I had 8 copies of the book to give away!

Irene Yeates said...

After reading your review, I see why this book is an Edgar Award winner. Your details are so vivid. Poor Mr. White....

caite said...

sounds very interesting! please enter me.