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A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum is first up for review in the Best Original Paperback category of Mystery Writers of America’s 2017 Edgar Awards. The story, told in flashback by narrator Mitch Malone, takes place in the small town of Brilliant, Ohio, during the 1960’s. Mitch recounts the tragic history and short life of his friend, Travis Baron. The two young teens live in starkly different circumstances from each other: Mitch is from a loving, comfortable home with a mother who checks all the maternal boxes of the apron-wearing set. Travis’s mother Amanda, on the other hand, was killed in a boating accident when Travis was a baby, spotted jumping from the cruiser, naked, with her lover just prior to a barge plowing into the boat. Neither of their bodies was ever found. Travis’s father, “Big Frank,” is a long-haul trucker who regularly beats his son, barely feeds or clothes him, and is drunk and promiscuous when he is at home.

It is left unclear if Amanda is actually dead. Travis enlists Mitch’s help in his “project” to find out what happened to his mother. We hope, along with Travis, that Amanda is still alive; we suspect, also along with Travis, that she was killed and that Big Frank somehow was responsible. Many of the townspeople (including the cop that investigated the original accident) think Big Frank either killed Amanda or arranged it (he was delivering a truckload to Arkansas at the time). The story unspools during the span of the two friends’ high school careers. They doggedly pursue various leads and do eventually discover the murderer. Along the way we are treated to humorous teenage banter, some heart-wrenching cruelty (eg., Big Frank doesn’t tell Travis his maternal grandparents are alive and well in North Carolina. When Travis finally tracks them down, he also finds out Big Frank has intervened by stealing all of Travis’s birthday money and Christmas gifts from them over the years), and the power of friendship to sustain a life.

Overall, Yocum’s books is an enjoyable read. Mitch and Travis are both well-developed, believable characters who are easy to root for. Big Frank is a tad two-dimensional in his cruelty; there is nothing redeemable about his character. I kept hoping we’d find out a compelling reason for his meanness, but no. The sense of place and time is a particular strength in this book, capturing the positives and negatives of small-town life. The plot is engaging, although I thought the story-arc sequence (four years of high school?) dragged at times and could have been collapsed.

(SPOILER ALERT) My major complaint about this book is the framing device used. In the prologue, Mitch lets us know he’s going to tell the story of the best friend he ever had, and implies that Travis died, killed at the end of their senior year in an ironic accident: Travis’s car plunges into the same body of water in which his mother supposedly drowned. Mitch piles on the irony, stating that Travis’s body, like Amanda’s, was never found. We carry this knowledge into the story, feeling sad that this interesting character we’re rooting for will die a tragic death at the end, even though he succeeds in his quest. Then we find out at the very end that this is not true! Travis is alive and well and living under an assumed name so Big Frank can’t find him. As a reader, this ending is not satisfying but annoying and manipulative. The story didn’t need this twist in order to be compelling and interesting. I’m left wondering if Yocum’s editor supplied this idea or if Yocum wrote it that way and his editor let it slide. Either way, the story would be better served without cheating the reader.

On a scale of one to ten, this book rates a six.

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