Andrew Klavan's 'True Crime': All ends on Death Row

June 11, 1995|By Rob Spillman | Rob Spillman,Special to The Sun

'True Crime,' by Andrew Klavan. 320 pages. New York: Crown Publishers. $21 Steve Everett is a creep. Crass, womanizing and a drunk, he is the perfect narrator for Andrew Klavan's 12th hard-boiled novel.

Everett is a St. Louis newspaper reporter who was booted from a New York paper for bopping the owner's 17-year-old daughter. Now he's making time with his new editor's wife. Things are already touchy with his own wife, and because rumors of his latest hanky-panky are spreading, he's sure that he'll lose her and his 2-year-old son.

After covering a long, murder-filled weekend, he's got a day off and a chance to patch everything up. But wouldn't you know it, a colleague gets in a car crash and can't cover that night's execution. Steve Everett isn't the kind of guy who can easily turn down a good lethal injection and the thug who's going to get put to sleep seems to deserve it - some loser who shot a pregnant store clerk in the throat, then left her to die.

While Everett's life is a incompetent mess, he is still a hell of a reporter. Human interest, personalities, all that touchy-feely filler stuff doesn't mean a thing to him; facts are what he believes in and he's damn good at finding them. Before he heads to the prison, Everett does a little background research on the 6-year-old case and as soon as he starts digging he smells a rat.

Despite his callous sense of self-preservation, Everett can't help but poke his unwelcome mug into the ugly underside of this case. With only 12 hours to the execution, Everett has a hunch that the State's juicing the wrong guy. The prisoner is white and the State's been exclusively killing blacks. By sticking it to a nasty white guy, the powers that be hope to buy a few black votes and get the Supreme Court off their back. The poor schmuck who happened to be buying a bottle of steak sauce at the time of the bungled robbery is going to die just to further a few politicos' careers.

Unfortunately, after all this hard-boiled buildup there isn't much suspense. The only question is whether or not Everett is going to get his junker of car around town fast enough to stop the wrongful execution.

All the long-winded stuff about the narrator being a heartless pig is only a cover-up for what Mr. Klavan really wants to write about -the unpleasantness of life during the last hours on death row. The scenes in the big house - showing the prisoner's wavering faith, his long-suffering wife, his perfect little girl, the qualms of the prison staff as they go through the dehumanizing routine - are wrenchingly clear and intimate, but they read like solid, functional, and less than thrilling nonfiction.

Ultimately, Steve Everett comes off as a fraud: He's not an amoral bastard, but a sensitive, moral man willing to risk his marriage, career and very life over an injustice. Likewise 'True Crime' is a fraud: It swaggers like a page-turning whodunnit thriller, but is really a plodding, three-hanky made-for-TV melodrama.

Rob Spillman has worked in publishing for 10 years, at Random House, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. He is currently working with E.L. Doctorow on the launch of 'Booknet,' a national cable channel devoted to books.

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