Monday, September 24, 2012

The Ninth Step - Grant Jerkins

The Ninth Step
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Prime Crime
Helen Patrice is intelligent, college-educated, and owns her own veterinary practice.  She also drinks.  All day, every day, as ‘maintenance;’ and, often, at night, until everything disappears.  But she’s a “functioning alcoholic.”  To her, that makes all the difference.  Until the morning she wakes up after a black-out drunk and hears news about a hit-and-run fatality.  Unable to remember the previous night after a certain point, she has to check the state of her car for confirmation of the fact that she has now taken a life.
Edgar Woolrich is a quiet man who teaches high school math.  Over dinner out one night, his wife, Judy, tells him that she’s pregnant, after years of trying.  On the way home that night, Judy dies in a hit-and-run.  The police have no witnesses, no leads.  Edgar desperately collects statistics over a period of months, entering facts onto charts hanging in his home, trying to makes sense of what his life has become.  He’s convinced that chaos theory will somehow point him and the police in the right direction. 

The two lines of Helen’s and Edgar’s lives intersect again.  Helen is now in AA, and she’s working on the ninth step: making amends.  Against the advice of her sponsor, Helen insinuates herself into Edgar’s life, eventually growing to love him.  She’s determined to replace what she took, without telling him she was the one who took it.  She has no idea there’s someone else out there who knows what happened that night, until she gets a note in the mail, asking “Does he know you killed his wife?”

The note in the mail incident occurs roughly two-thirds of the way through the narrative.  (It doesn’t count as a spoiler, since this is part of the jacket copy.)  Up until that point, we follow Edgar and Helen on their separate life trajectories, until the inevitable meeting(s.)  As readers, we’re simply witnesses to the chaos created by seemingly small decisions in life.  Some of the chaos is unforeseeable, some is, or should be, completely predictable and avoidable.

Helen is clearly a damaged woman long before the hit-and-run.  Even afterwards, when she seeks help, she obviously doesn’t realize just how damaged she is.  Her decision to make amends by replacing what she took is understandable on some level, but hard to imagine in reality.  The resulting reactions to the information in the note seems completely bizarre to me, but I must remember that I’m an observer to all this, and not someone who had a huge part of my life ripped away in an instant.  Even so, I had a hard time relating to either character after these events, although the story kept me glued to the pages, waiting to see what happened next.  The pace is lightning-fast, with plenty of twists.  I’m not sure it’s realistic, but it is an absolutely compelling read.
Rating: 8
September 2012
ISBN# 978-0-425-25598-8 (trade paperback)


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