To Account for Murder by William C. Whitbeck

If Permanent Press had a prestige novel, To Account for Murder by William C. Whitbeck would it.  The novel presents a fictionalized version of real life events that happened in Michigan.  In 1945, Senator Warren G. Hooper was murdered in a gangland-style slaying.  To this day, the murder case has never been solved.  William C. Whitbeck, the author of the novel, also works as Chief Judge of the Michigan Court.  He presents us with the tale of one Charlie Cahill, a disabled vet, prosecutor, and son of an Irish bootlegger.

Set in Lansing during 1945 and into 1946, Whitbeck paints a picture of a strange yet familiar world.  Charlie Cahill narrates the novel in a classic deathbed confession set in the mid-1990s.  The hospital bed mirrors his recovery from grievous wounds he suffered during the D-Day invasion.  During his convalescence, he meets Sarah Maynard who works as a nurse in the hospital ward.  Sarah saves this broken man, having one less arm, and pulling him back from the black abyss of alcoholic despair.  The resulting affair is less than convenient for both involved, since Sarah is the wife of Michigan Senator Harry Maynard, an abusive drunk.

The machinations that lead Charlie to murder Senator Maynard act as prologue to the ensuing courtroom drama and political races.  Charlie is recruited by Judge “Ironpants” Hennessey to assist one Hubbell Street, a drinkin’ whorin’ prosecuting attorney with Macbeth-like ambition and Falstaffian appetites.  This is where To Account for Murder, with its historical setting and lively characters akin to HBO prestige fare like Boardwalk Empire, meets the murderer-working-in-law-enforcement of Dexter.  Charlie and Street work to engineer a frame-up of two button men in the Jewish Purple Gang.  The Purples put a serious hurt on Charlie’s brother and might have killed their father.

Whitbeck spices up the proceedings with relevant historical details, details usually smoothed over or erased entirely by historians who mistake historical narrative as harmless family-friendly infotainment.  These details include a vicious anti-Semitism and racism that exists as a vast undersong to the omnipresent corruption and influence-peddling that permeates the capital city.  The reader is also reminded that the United States had a problem with illegal intoxicants flooding our cities, this time coming from the North.  While bootlegging and gangsterism acquired the amber hue of nostalgia, the United States faces a similar problem with narcotrafficking and the concomitant social ills it breeds.  With a constitutional amendment repealing Prohibition and Canadian Club on liquor store shelves, the solution to the endless intractable War on Drugs may be staring us in the face.

The novel gives the reader a harrowing courtroom drama, pitting Charlie and Street against the formidable Joel Haricot, a legless veteran of the Great War, and adept legal mastermind.  As with any moral tale, triumphs come at a dear cost, along with unexpected reversals and betrayals.

The only quibble this reviewer has with the novel is a revelation that occurs on the last page of the last chapter.  While in a certain light it answers many questions, it has the unintended effect of undermining the entire narrative.  Whether it was a justifiable pay-off or a gratuitous manipulation depends on the attitude of the reader.  For this reviewer, it’s a hung jury.

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