By Nancy Grace
Hyperion Press, 2009
To save the curious from needless searching, The Eleventh Victim, the debut mystery/crime novel by controversial CNN reporter Nancy Grace, is not part of a numbered series (The First Witness, The Second Juror, The Third Handcuff, etc.). Her earlier book, listed on Hyperion’s ‘Also by the Author’ page with the punchy title Objection! turns out to be: Objection! How High-Priced Defense Attorneys, Celebrity Defendants and a 24/7 Media Have Hijacked Our Criminal Justice System. From this not-quite-as-punchy title, the book is obviously a delicate, unbiased look at the way justice is pursued in this country. Apparently it’s non-fiction, though the subsequent charges that Grace “borrowed” rather substantially from another writer’s work might call its actual category into question.
Can we presume Nancy Grace’s celebrity factor gains her an instant, devoted audience? This audience, fans of her lengthy time on CNN (and previously, Court-TV) would expect a book drawn extensively from Grace’s nearly ten years as a Special Prosecutor in Atlanta, Georgia. They would expect a strong female lead character, sensitive to all forms of victim’s rights. A great number of her fans would expect any book by Nancy Grace to be bathed in the culture of the southern United States. Above all, they would want her aggressive, corrosive, sixth-cup-of coffee energy to make that business flight or bus trip go by quickly.
With that in mind, I consumed a good deal of Grace’s book on public transportation (with a significant number of those pages flipping by while waiting for the MBTA’s notorious #1 bus, a prime cause, one suspects, of excessive best-seller reading). This seemed to be the best way to experience the book, and in that environment I can honestly say The Eleventh Victim shows that Nancy Grace knows her fans pretty well.
I could feel the pleasure Grace got in projecting herself into her main characters. Of course the prime Author Surrogate is Hailey Dean, the blonde Georgia prosecutor, who becomes so distraught during the trial of the serial killer who produced “the eleventh victim” that she leaves the legal profession, moves to New York City, and with little apparent trouble, becomes a therapist. What surprised me was the amount of time Grace spends in the head of Clarence Carter, the Georgia judge who overturns the serial killer’s conviction. Old C.C. must be based on someone very special in our author’s life. She pounces on this dim-minded alcoholic womanizing governor-wannabe with all the vitriol she can muster. Once the judge reverses the conviction, his function in the plot is over – but Nancy returns to him a few more times just so we can savor his career and life in complete shambles. I didn’t mind – old C.C. is old N.G.’s most memorable creation. Also invested with a fair amount of energy is Virginia Gunn, a fervent conservationist trying to protect an island off the Georgia coast from the ravages of commercialism. Grace alternately ridicules and admires this woman, who pulls her wool cap over her ears to protect her brain from cell phone waves and who manages to keep eight little dogs (though only the heroic Sidney gets a name or personality), and who recruits volunteers for her many causes by hanging out in the parking lot at the Kroger’s supermarket. Just how does Ms. Grace feel about this character? Try this passage:
Virginia took a close look at the two women in their mid-to –late thirties, both with identically cropped early-Chris Evert hairstyles, both with gold wire rimmed glasses and both with baggy hiking shorts. From where Virginia sat, the only physical difference between the two was that one wore Birkenstocks over white socks and the other topped her white socks with hemp-woven clogs. Pay dirt.
That passage illustrates another Gracian swerve: to describe characters by their wardrobe labels – a distressing shorthand for creating real people. Another annoying tendency in the prose here is to not quite think through some thought progressions. Such as when Virginia makes the following observation of an island Commissioner:
She couldn’t believe she was noticing only then for the first time, after knowing the man for twelve years, that he was the only person she had ever come across who had both a toupee and dandruff. Her powers of perception were diminishing.
Hmmm. If Virginia just noticed something, wouldn’t that mean that her powers of perception were increasing? On a bus or train, these passages sometimes slip by. Even when reading from a stationary position, these hiccups don’t derail the last third of The Eleventh Victim, which builds up a decent head of steam as the released serial killer follows Hailey Dean to the designated urban northern hell of New York City. Hailey’s therapy patients start turning up dead. She becomes the prime suspect and does more crawling and climbing with cracked ribs than any Navy SEAL, and with far less discomfort. Grace manages to hop from serial killer Cruise (?!) to Virginia Gunn’s condo-commandoes, to Hailey Dean’s foiling of police interrogation procedures without breaking the flow. This is difficult for any new writer of fiction, so hopefully Ms. Grace’s future efforts will bear the polish gained by this experience. And maybe books will fall off a courtroom table and hit the floor instead of the ground.
Maybe there’s an audience out there that would like to read about the murder of a guest on a TV crime reporting show. Maybe the blonde, Georgian, female host of that show investigates the murder. The suspects could be any number of former guests/celebrities/media types. Imagine Nancy Grace probing behind the scenes of a TV news empire. We know about how Melinda Duckett committed suicide, allegedly because of the emotional trauma sustained during a Nancy Grace interview in 2006. With Grace’s skill in utilizing her past, it would be fascinating to read those elements stirred into a tasty crime-fiction crust. I can see her climbing into the mind of a network executive. Or maybe that world is just too close for her to jeopardize with the same laser vision she applies to Georgia politics.
Someday, she’ll tackle that monster. I can’t wait to get on the Alewife train with my new copy of The Fifteenth Caller.
Brad Jones uses his retail job to fund his career as an obscure jazz saxophonist. He’s performed over 1,000 improv shows as a member of the Proposition Theatre in Inman Square and was a founding member of Boston’s Next Move Theatre.