An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins
Independently of the process by which we select lovers and so accumulate families and relatives, one of our rights as social animals is to choose our friends. Although there are times when commercial or political expediency forces us into relationships we’d rather avoid, there are always the one or two genuine friends with whom we feel comfortable. The question, therefore, is what makes one person “friend” material. On balance, I think it’s a question of world view, that the potential pair find they share a similar way of assessing how the world works and deciding how best to exploit the opportunities they identify. I suppose this is just a different way of restating the old idiom, “Birds of a feather, flock together.” But whereas some species do congregate in multitudes as a way of reducing the odds they will fall victim to predators, this strikes me as rather different. It’s a more personal exercise of preference. Yes, it will have some defensive capability because, by sharing burdens, friends weather the storms and emerge stronger. But this is not a “fair weather” phenomenon. Friends are friends whether their current experiences are good or bad.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with An Unattended Death by Victoria Jenkins (The Permanent Press, 2012) which is a story about people who happen to get caught up in a police procedural investigating a death that may or may not be accidental. The heroine is Irene Chavez who moved away from small-town America in the Puget Sound area and was making a life for herself when, as is always the way, she fell in love. At first, this did not derail her efforts to complete her education, but pregnancy slowed her down. The death of her husband completed the process and diverted her into the police force. With her fourteen-year-old son in tow, she’s now returned to the area of her birth as a detective. Because the men who would have taken lead on this particular death are either too busy with other cases or have gone on holiday, she’s confirmed as the principal to investigate a possible death by drowning.
Thematically, this is a book exploring the different ways in which people form and break relationships. The family of the deceased is wonderfully Byzantine — they see themselves as intellectuals, the majority with a medical background and so, as summer residents only, they avoid mixing with the permanent locals. It’s a class thing elevated by their background of some wealth and an innate sense of privilege. In the face of this death, their desire to withdraw from the world and lick their emotional wounds grows stronger. They see the death as so obviously accidental that it does not warrant investigation. The resistance to Detective Chavez is therefore passively aggressive which, to some extent, is also designed to amplify the detective’s sense of her own intellectual inferiority in the face of these well-respected experts. On the land next door, is an elderly lawyer who has a property dispute with the family. The deceased herself was a slightly less than conventional psychiatrist who exploited her own sexuality to bridge the communication gap with her patients. In her personal life, she was ending the reasonably long-running relationship with an unfaithful lover. This means there were several people who might have had motive but opportunity is complicated.
In her personal life, the detective’s son gets picked up by the police as a passenger in a truck taken without consent and containing a modest quantity of drugs. As a single mother with a job forcing her to spend long hours away from the home, she has always been aware her son might fall in with the wrong crowd and get into trouble. Because of her role as a detective, the local police bump the case up to the new prosecuting attorney. This gives some level of protection to the police against allegations they cover up the crimes of their own. Interestingly, this attorney is also non-standard, having avoided the usual monomaniacal career path the majority of professionals follow to achieve moderately high-ranking positions. He takes a personal interest in the case and so becomes aware that the detective has been the victim of an attempted rape. The detective had deliberately avoided new relationships after her husband died. This latest experience is hardly likely to endear her to those of the male gender. So much for his chances should he be interested in a relationship with the detective.
This is a slice of the real world, mainly told from the detective’s point of view. We therefore look over her shoulder as she follows the trail and confronts her own sense of insecurity as events in her own life and that of her son threaten her hopes for a peaceful life. The resolution of the case comes as a part of the natural flow of events. There’s no artfully staged confrontation with a room full of suspects. Indeed, when she has the answer, she decides not to rush to the family of the deceased with her analysis and explanation. Life just goes on. This makes An Unattended Death a superior crime novel. The detective proves to have more intellectual gumption than the Paris family would patronisingly choose to believe. She works out their “little secrets” which prove the same as those of their social inferiors. Underneath all the veneers of class, people are people. This is definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys a character-driven mystery where, until the end, it remains unclear whether it’s possible to prove the death a murder.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.