May 16, 2011

Review: The Danes Murders

In The Danes Murders, Patrick Haley details three murders that quickened the pulse of rural Clinton County, Ohio, its life's blood the daily rhythms of family and community.

Pat could have spun this true crime narrative with a hard-boiled edge, exploiting his role as sheriff in charge of the investigation.  But he instead chose to write in an understated but engaging style similar to John Douglas' and Mark Olshaker's in Mindhunter and The Anatomy of Motive.

Pat's writing style is spare; the narrative is clear and the story told straightforwardly--no literary tricks or gimmicks.  He's a confident author who knows both subject matter and the writing craft.  His style puts us directly inside Pat's head, with no intervening literary posturing or complexity.  As a result, The Danes Murders fascinates, while Pat's style carries us through this supercharged murder investigation. 

Pat's masterful use of irony, a key literary trope, enhances his storytelling.  He chooses anecdotes appropriate to the story; collectively, they have a tremendous impact on us as we read.  At times, they are humorous and subtle; at times wickedly incisive--but always, they are ironic. 

In 1984, Terry Coffman and Danny Hooks slashed their throats and bludgeoned to death Don and Karen Danes, and their son, Rodney.  A five year old daughter, Lisa, hidden in a closet possibly by her brother before he was murdered, escaped her family's fate.  From the moment he leads his deputies into the Danes' home, until he arrests Coffman and Hooks, Pat pulls us into the story.  Laying bare his thoughts and decision making, he steps us through the investigation, making us feel like we're there, as he and his deputies process the crime scene, as they push themselves to solve the case and, at last, as they arrive at the suspects' homes to make arrests. 

As Pat tells us, he maintained firm control of the crime scene, keeping a calm demeanor with EMTs who insisted on being present before Pat was ready for them.  With the media, he conveyed only those facts he felt they needed to know, despite pressure to prematurely divulge sensitive information. One day, he overheard others deriding his efforts, but he quietly left the court house without interrupting to defend himself.

But Pat's steady restraint is tempered by a vigorous verbal thrust and parry with many whom he encounters.  In one scene, he is searching Coffman's garage for the pipe used to bludgeon the victims.  Coffman's brother-in-law, present during the search, engages Pat in a discussion of the murders, telling Pat how shocked he is by Terry's involvement.  Pat remarks, "I understand your torment" (197).  

A fabulous zinger, the remark is an example of Roman irony, in which Pat uses words with double meaning to elicit a certain response.  To Coffman's brother-in-law, it might have sounded like Pat was empathetic.  However, it's clear that Pat is demolishing the brother-in-law's self-serving attempt to gain undeserved distance from Coffman's heinous crime, or even possibly, to ingratiate himself and pick the brains of the sheriff conducting his wife's brother's murder investigation. 

Pat Haley is a member of the law enforcement brotherhood, and as a master of Roman irony, words are his restraining shield--or sometimes his ax--as in the preceding example.  He is equally adept at using situational irony, in which "an unexpected outcome of a situation is shown to be in contrast with what actually results" (Tropes: Situational Irony).

Situational irony abounds in The Danes Murders, but one example most exemplifies the tragedy for all of the victims.  In this example, Pat describes his return to the crime scene the day after the murders.  Ken Fliehman, Future Farmers of America advisor to fifteen year old victim, Rodney Danes, told Pat how Rodney liked cutting out FFA articles from the newspaper.  Pat shares how emotionally tough it was for him as a father of a son Rodney's age to think of Rodney's life so brutally cut short.  He tells us that he "found [the newspaper] articles of which [ . . . ] Fliehman spoke, neatly posted on the wall above Rodney's bed" (49).  Rodney's youthful dream, pointlessly crushed, is in direct and tragic contrast with what actually happened, a heavily ironic point that Pat makes with this well-chosen anecdote. 

As readers we decide what makes one true crime novel a better read than another based on what we like. Do we like the author's style?  Do we like the kind of stories the author writes?  Do we like the author?  As reviewers, our choices result from more complex criteria.  One criterion that serves authors, readers, and reviewers equally well is a focus on how novels are distinguished among others within their genre.  What tropes mark their authors' styles?  How effectively do the authors demonstrate craft mastery?  

The Danes Murders is distinguished in its style because of Pat's use of comic irony.  Comic irony occurs "[w]hen there is a serious underlying meaning, a contrast or a generalization under a witty, humorous or light statement [ . . . ]" (Tropes: Comic Irony).  Again, examples abound; however, one that epitomizes Pat's ability to engage us involves his recounting of the many offers of help he received during the investigation.

As Pat recounts a phone call from Russ Bradley, sheriff of Greene County, Bradley informs Pat that two more bodies have just been found.  Bradley, wickedly ornery, further informs Pat they're in his jurisdiction, "just inside the [Clinton County] line" (67).  Pat, exhausted and sleep deprived, is flabbergasted, but taking the news in stride he promises he'll send deputies and join Bradley at the scene.  Bradley then replies, "Just kidding, Sheriff.  Let me know if we can help" (67).  Pat tells us it took him days to get Bradley's humor, but being from sturdy Irish stock, he eventually did. 

Pat states, "Humor used the proper way at an appropriate time can be just what one needs to diffuse a stressful situation" (68).  He is one author who, based on his own masterful use of comic irony--used well and at the right time--does very much know.  Using comic irony, he proves craft mastery, distinguishing The Danes Murders among true crime novels and making it a Buzzard Bone pick.  

No comments: