These days, every police procedural on television follows the same pattern. A body is found in the “cold open,” the police make a wisecrack or two, the opening titles roll, and the next scene starts in the morgue, with the cops bantering back and forth with the coroner about the cause of death. I think this began in the ’70s, when Jack Klugman played a heroic coroner in “Quincy, M.E.,” but it really started rolling back in 1991, when two of the top movies of the year --- Backdraft and The Silence of the Lambs --- featured extensive scenes in pathology labs, complete with horribly-mangled corpses. (In Backdraft, one sarcastic coroner advises the movie’s hero to pick up a badly burned corpse, explaining, “It’s not like he’s going to try to sell you insurance.”) Now you have entire shows in which the coroners and lab techs are the heroes, and the police are only on call to pick up the murderers that the investigators tell them to catch.
I watch programs like this myself, and the one thing that they mostly have in common is that the people standing over the body and talking aren’t incredibly interested in the person who died. They are interested in the body, and the clues that it contains --- the elements of the final meal, the pattern of the cuts on the corpse’s skin, the DNA under the fingernails --- but not so much about who the person on the slab was. For the coroner, the body is grist for the grisly mill; for the police, it’s a necessary stop on the road to catching the criminal. But the whole exercise is not calculated to inspire pity, or regret, or any emotion that can’t be expressed by the cheap one-liner. It’s just the necessary work of exposition that will lead to some hapless guest star ensnared in the web of justice.
That is not what INVISIBLE BOY is about. Strictly speaking, it is more of a courtroom drama than a mystery. In a mystery, you are given an array of possible suspects and follow the detective to determine which of them killed the victim in the conservatory with the lead pipe, or what have you. It does not give much away to say that in this book, the perpetrators are not only identified, but identified swiftly and correctly --- there is none of this “did-they-didn’t-they” business. The mystery, such as it is, revolves on whether or not they will escape justice.
Where INVISIBLE BOY diverges from your run-of-the-mill police procedural is its concern for, and focus on, its young victim. Cornelia Read’s heroine, the intrepid, stylish and (sometimes) sozzled Madeline Dare, has returned from the hinterlands and is working at a dead-end publishing job in Manhattan. A chance acquaintance at a vodka-fueled party convinces her to assist in cleaning out generations of neglected brambles from a ruined, abandoned cemetery in deepest Queens. While wielding her machete through the thickets of the urban jungle, Madeline comes across the bones of a child --- not a child of generations past, but a boy of contemporary New York, whose ribs were shattered by the violent acts of an abuser.
The child’s name is discovered quickly, and his mother and her boyfriend are arrested shortly thereafter. Madeline spends most of the rest of the novel observing the slow-moving gears of the criminal justice system. She’s far from a passive participant; Read has her dealing with a shadowy threat to her own safety, and she must try to confront an instance of abuse from her own family’s past. But most of the action takes place in court, with Madeline sitting at a remove, unable to do more than hope for justice.
INVISIBLE BOY tends to wander in places, although reading about Madeline wander through the Hamptons is more fun than watching most other people do anything else. But it always returns to those bones, to the life of the poor, abused child who died because he left a toy on the floor. It stands against our routine desensitization of the dead, against making their lives the fodder for a badly-creaking justice system. It does more than touch on the eternal themes of memory, regret, loss and death --- it incorporates them, making them live on the page.
In Read’s previous novels, there was a moment when the scales fell from the narrator’s eyes and a previously unsuspected character was revealed to be evil and dangerous. That doesn’t happen in INVISIBLE BOY. The evil isn’t discovered in a flash of inspiration, but is revealed, slowly and painfully, in the kind of stark language needed for the task. The book exists in a dark moral universe, a world away from the slickness of TV police procedurals, down in a place of sorrow and helplessness. It does not offer cheap entertainment, but wrenching emotion, the small comforts of pity, and a glimpse into the unsettling void.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds, who writes the "Northbound" blog at http://www.txreviews.com/blog. on January 22, 2011