When I received Brad Parks’ new crime novel, Closer Than You Know, for review, I felt the same as I felt when Anne Perry’s An Echo of Murder showed up at my door several months ago. As I wrote in my review for that book, “nowadays it takes almost everything in me to read fiction….Perhaps I’m too tangled in my own fictions and the unsolvable mystery of my own life to justify engrossment in clever whodunits.” Thankfully, a darn good story melted my literary prejudice almost right away. Yes, Closer Than You Know is sometimes semi-formulaic and trots out a few crime/mystery/thriller tropes, but such fiction must adhere to some formula. Otherwise, the genre would be boneless and less palatable. Besides, Parks is subtle and innovative enough to spare his book from typicality.
Another standout aspect of Closer Than You Know is its backdrop: the child-welfare system experienced by a new mother who grew up as a foster child. In a promotional interview Parks revealed that he applied the knowledge gained by his “tour of duty as a stay-at-home dad with an infant” (something I can relate to – twice) and observation of the special, closer bond between the baby and his wife. Also, Parks ironed out the seemingly uneasy choice of writing for female protagonists after realizing that he “was writing human protagonists who happened to be female.” That I applaud. First of all, there never seems to be controversy over female authors writing male characters, and, second, too much wariness or shyness over representing types can muddle or even ruin art in general. (Consider Ralph Ellison’s astute preference for writing individuals rather than race-representative characters, and the success of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha.)
Thanks to Parks’ diligent and thorough research, I learned much during my reading. His rare (if not unique) topical choice offers an unvarnished look at the social-services system and “how its best intentions could be twisted by the intransigence and senselessness of what was basically a broken bureaucracy.” The same goes for the legal system. The novel’s main character, Melanie Barrick, suffers sling after sling, arrow after arrow, from both systems – on top of being framed for crimes she didn’t commit or intend on committing.
The story opens with an unnamed couple arriving at Shenandoah Valley Social Services in hopes of gaining approval as foster parents for a baby. Though they seem to be “the perfect couple,” they’re unable to conceive, hence this path. At the end of the chapter, I wondered why the two remained nameless. Well, in spoiler-free language I can say that this was quite purposeful – and impactful later on in the book.
The narrative switches to the first-person voice of Melanie Barrick, mother of a three-month-old Alex and wife to a college teacher’s assistant named Ben. Due to financial need, the Barricks must leave Alex with a caregiver named Mrs. Ferncliff (a somewhat Dickensian surname) each workday. She’s conscientious and nurturing toward Alex, but grouchy and dictatorial toward Melanie. Or, as the narrative goes, Harry Potter with children and Voldemort with adults. Melanie works as a dispatcher at Diamond Trucking, alongside the owner’s son, snotty jerk Warren Plotz (an even more Dickensian surname). Perhaps hitting too close to home for this reader, Melanie’s English Literature degree has made her “articulate, urbane, and virtually unhirable,” so instead of flourishing in academia or going on book tours, the highlight of her daily schedule is the stressful struggle of picking up Alex from Ferncliff on time after work. When the story opens on Melanie, she gets a ticket for running a red light trying to do just that. She arrives twenty minutes late, only to learn that her son was sent to Social Services. “They told me about you,” snarls Ferncliff. “I hope they get that child as far away from you as possible.”
A little later it’s disclosed that Melanie’s drunkard father abused her when she was a child, as well as beat her mother. After hopping from group home to foster home for a time, Melanie lost contact with her brother Teddy and half-sister Charlotte when her mother gave up parental rights. “So to now have Alex coming into contact with that world was a vicious kind of cruelty,” goes Melanie’s narration, “like an aftershock from an earthquake that should have been far too gone to still move the ground.” Refused contact with Alex at Social Services, Melanie recognizes the inhospitable, dehumanizing gravity of the system which tends to ruin its original altruistic purpose. A doomful burden weighs on Melanie for most of the story: “All the while, I could practically hear the system’s drumbeats. A tribe of cannibals was massing. And it was hungry.”
This nightmarish slap in the face sets off a nearly relentless chain of lamentable events – including being fired by Warren Plotz – and keeps one’s fingers flipping pages just about as eagerly as viewers’ eyes binge-watch a TV series.
Third-person narration returns with the Augusta County Courthouse’s commonwealth chief deputy attorney Amy Kaye. Aaron Dansby, her asshole boss (whose “douchebag aviator glasses” are mentioned a few times – maybe too many times – in the book), assigns her to the legal fallout of a recent cocaine bust, in which a married mother, artlessly nicknamed “Coke Mom,” has been nabbed for drug possession with intent to sell. Dansby believes that she has carried on the cocaine operation of a now-imprisoned Mookie Myers, and he wants “to make an example out of this woman” since her being white can dispel any perception of racial bias against black perps. Plus, the win can help him obtain higher office.
Amy, barely hiding her contempt for Dansby, would prefer to focus on a cold sexual-assault case, which involves a serial rapist who notably whispers to his victims rather than rages at them. Among all assailants’ screwy modi operandi out there, this is particularly disturbing because it brings a perverse calm to the crime, as well as leaves a special kind of haunting impression. Though she’s so driven to investigate the whispering-rape case, Amy does gain interest in Dansby’s assignment after she learns Coke Mom’s actual name: Melanie Barrick. And then the second of the novel’s several bombshells falls: Melanie also was one of the whispering rapist’s victims.
The ensuing trauma was complicated by pregnancy, but Melanie had opted against abortion, a difficult decision that isn’t as rare as one might think at first. If what I’ve read about rape-pregnancy statistics is still somewhat accurate, about half of such victims decide to give birth, either keeping the babies or releasing them for adoption. Melanie chose the former, and her noble reason is revealed in this affecting passage:
…I felt this overwhelming love for the thing growing inside me…It already didn’t matter whether the pregnancy started with an act of love or an act of violence. The baby was mine, not the rapist’s. Just because he owned the episode didn’t mean he got to own the result.
The dimensional character of Melanie is further enriched by her psychology in the wake of such a negative upbringing, professional failure and, of course, the sexual violence she endured. Parks shows this psychology regularly throughout the book, successfully creating a portrayal that’s not only believable but sympathetic. “The character is the most important thing,” said author Max Allan Collins in response to Michael McCarty’s question about what makes a good mystery. “If you put the puzzle or the mystery first, you’re in trouble. People will find a mystery satisfying, even if it wasn’t terribly hard to figure out, as long as the characters are interesting.”
Though it became obvious that the baby wasn’t Ben’s progeny, he accepted the role as father anyway, showing his loyal love for Melanie. Still, the stress of the situation and her lifelong lessons of distrust cause Melanie to read into her husband’s very pronoun usage when Ben asks, “What are you going to do?” Then:
Maybe my English background made me too sensitive to pronouns, but I was annoyed by his use of the second-person singular. An ugly thought sprang from my head: If I was the mother of his biological child, would he have used the first-person plural?
Speaking of distrust, another character who’s introduced is next-door neighbor Bobby Ray Walters, a stereotypical (or should I say stereotyped) right-winger/Trump supporter/gun-rights advocate/trailer dweller who wears a “BASKET OF DEPLORABLES” T-shirt, displays confederate flags, has surveillance cameras and is even associated with Duck Dynasty in the narration. And, of course, he’s considered a government-suspicious paranoiac. After arrest, jailing, being blamed for intending to sell her baby on the black market and getting bailed out unexpectedly by her former ne’er-do-well brother Teddy – who suggests that “someone is totally messing with” her, Melanie realizes that Bobby Ray’s cameras might’ve recorded whoever must have planted those drugs. Bobby Ray is cordial and willing to help, and in the footage they spot the perp: a man with an obvious scar on his head (reminding me of the one-armed man gimmick in The Fugitive).
Refreshingly, it turns out that the paranoia is on Melanie’s part, because her neighbor is nothing but a warm-hearted helper: “It turned out the basket of deplorables wasn’t as irredeemable as some might make it seem.” However, this seems to be a mild left-handed compliment, since the assumption of most or all right-wing folks as being beyond redemption is quite popular (and largely unfair) nowadays. Again, later in the book, a Sheriff Jason Powers is described as a “huntin’, fishin’ country boy,” but “in defiance of stereotypes, he never seemed to have a problem with Amy being a Northerner or a woman.” (Really, these aren’t complaints. I’m always cautious when I encounter such one-sided clichés, having been beat over the head with them in extreme fashion by maestro Stephen King for 30+ years.)
The theme of distrust, duplicity and disillusionment continues with Melanie’s fragile regard for her apparently reformed brother, as well as for Ben after she discovers that he’s been keeping a major secret from her for some time. On top of all this, another decision by Ben takes Melanie to the brink, seemingly confirming her basic expectation of spiritual entropy and ultimate doom:
That little girl had always expected this day would come. That little girl knew there was nothing permanent about love, or the people who claimed to have it in for her. It lasted only as long as it was convenient for them.
This notion is substantiated further in the following excerpt:
…I had generally come to believe most people in this world were too consumed with their own dramas to spend much time concerning themselves with anyone else’s. Even when I was a child, in the throes of the system, I came to recognize that what could feel like people out to get me was mostly a hodgepodge of tenuously connected human beings, each of them bumbling along in narrow-minded self-interest – with the occasional act of altruism thrown in just to keep you from losing hope in the species altogether.
All Melanie has strived for is maintenance of a peaceful, secure family. When she first surveys her ransacked home, a hostile outside force collides with her carefully constructed idealism, turning her sense of coherence and hope to rubble. Perhaps Parks chose the aptest metaphor for this state of mind in having Melanie express her unnecessary breast milk into the bathroom sink. Thankfully, she does opt to continue expression so as to keep up her milk production in anticipation of being able to breastfeed Alex in the (hopefully) near future. So, after representing despair and arrested purpose, the milk becomes like a vigilant lighted lamp for her lost son. It also, at least for me, evokes Sethe’s literal and symbolic struggle over her breast milk in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And then there’s the salvational concluding scene in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, in which Rose of Sharon, whose motherhood was cut short by stillbirth, offers her milk to feed a starving man.
The formulaic situation of a seemingly half-assed court-appointed lawyer turns out to be the most endearing and pleasant developments in the story. Melanie’s defense lawyer, unkempt Mr. Honeywell (okay: Dickensian surname to the max), proves himself to be quite astute and effective – not to mention personable, sincere and motivated by something deeper and nobler than objective justice. Parks presents Commonwealth v. Barrick with evidently well-researched details, applying some very familiar courtroom elements with grace and confidence. And, of course, every whodunit needs a “You done it!” – which is particularly satisfied by some impactful revelations, both bad and good. As someone who prides himself on guessing twists and weeding out MacGuffins, I blush to admit that Parks surprised me once or twice, probably at least thrice. (Now I’d like to read his previous book, Say Nothing, another story involving parenthood and threats to family security.)
At this point I demand praise for withholding key spoilers of Closer Than You Know. Let’s just say that the title is quite meaningful and portentous on more than one level, so bravo to Parks for putting that together. Another bravo for his establishment of parental bonds with children as the book’s pumping heart, drawing on both his own experiences as a father and his appreciation for his wife as a mother. Perhaps a line appearing on the last page of the story and reminding me of the maternal charity of Steinbeck’s Rose of Sharon again, sums up this theme: “Babies are nothing if not a chance for the world to start over again.”
Finally, before closing this garbled assessment, I’ll leave a cruel teaser to coax potential readers off the fence. In about the first fifth of the book (leave my math alone!) Amy Kaye interviews rape-victim Daphne Hasper for a second time, and she gets the circumspect woman to admit her past gut guess about who the whispering fiend might’ve been: a high-school guy named…Warren Plotz. Could he be the culprit? Of course, this prospect is nowhere near the end to the compelling plot’s (plotz) thickening.
Okay. I should be sentenced to 20 to life for that pun. No chance of parole.
– David Herrle