A writer turned P.I. investigates the murder of a forgotten
ex-convict while coming to terms with personal tragedy....
I keep a list of authors. Well, make that "lists," actually.
There's one in my wallet and one in my Daytimer and one on my
laptop and one on my desktop, and one of these days I'll get 'em
all organized. They're all made up of authors who wrote books I
really enjoyed; I've got their names down so I won't miss their
next efforts. Then there's a list I carry around in my head, a list
of authors whose names I know almost as well as my own, so I don't
need to write them down. Those would be my 'A' List. It has names
on it like Parker and Burke and Leonard who have been writing
forever. There are a few names, like Buffa and Meltzer, that
haven't been writing all that long but who made the list fairly
quickly. And now, joining that esteemed group of scribes with A
WELL-KNOWN SECRET, is Jim Fusilli.
Fusilli, a music critic for The Wall Street Journal, only
recently began writing novels.
His first novel, CLOSING TIME, was a surprisingly confident work,
and introduced Terry Orr, a writer and historian turned private
investigator following the tragic, senseless deaths of his wife and
infant son. The minor flaws of that novel --- the letters Orr wrote
to his dead wife, which occasionally interrupted the flow of the
novel, and the almost too-cute precociousness of Bella, his
pre-teen daughter --- are absent from A WELL-KNOWN SECRET. Using
post-9/11 Manhattan as both a backdrop and a participant, Fusilli
presents Orr as a character who is grievously affected by tragedies
visited upon the family and the city he loves, as a character who
is damaged but who nonetheless endures.
Fusilli, seemingly overnight, has smoothed out the few rough edges
of CLOSING TIME, with the result being that A WELL-KNOWN SECRET
contains prose as compelling as any you will read this year.
Fusilli seamlessly melds Orr's personal and professional life,
injecting a potential romantic interest into Orr's life as a
missing person case he becomes involved with goes horribly
Orr is retained by a woman to locate her daughter, Sonia Salgado
who recently has been released from a 30-year jail term for the
robbery and murder of a jewel merchant. Orr locates Salgado easily
enough, but his work brings no comfort to Salgado's mother as her
daughter has been brutally murdered. Feeling that he must provide
some sense of closure for his client Orr begins to investigate the
circumstances of her murder as well as the events which led to her
arrest, trial and conviction three decades ago.
Orr follows a twisted trail, which leads back to the New York City
of the 1970s. He learn of a robbery scheme that went horribly wrong
and how in a cover-up scheme an innocent, mentally simple young
woman bore the brunt of the punishment. The real perpetrators
continue to go to any length to cover up the crime. Orr is warned
off of his investigation by persons known and unknown, expected and
unexpected, and soon finds that he cannot turn his back on anyone.
Orr, however, is not above a preemptive strike or three.
On a parallel track, Bella, now fourteen, has blossomed into a
beautifully aware young woman, the type of person that we would all
hope that our child would come to be. Orr feels as if he has
somehow let her down, as if he has been inadequate in the face of
the tragedy they have shared; yet, when one beholds Belle it is
unspoken, but obvious, that he has done a magnificent job of
performing an impossible task.
Fusilli additionally pulls off the neat trick of making the reader,
if not Orr, fall totally in love with Julie Giada, an assistant
district attorney who will hopefully be a larger presence in future
novels. And while Fusilli has created a neatly complex, but
easy-to-follow mystery in A WELL-KNOWN SECRET, some of his best
writing occurs near the conclusion of his novel when Orr, Giada,
Bella, and Orr's burned-out buddy Diddio attend a music critics'
award ceremony. Fusilli's ability to slice into and out of the glue
and matter that comprise relationships as they rise, fall and
coalesce is simply breathtaking. At the same time, Fusilli's
descriptions of Manhattan are so subtly dead-on and compelling that
after reading A WELL-KNOWN SECRET the reader will feel compelled to
walk the same streets as Orr simply to again savor the flavor of
the novel in real-world time.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011