The Verdict of Each Man Dead by David Whellams
Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
Ottawa crime writer David Whellams has certainly offered readers one of the more intriguing stories of 2015 with the release of his newest Peter Cammon mystery, The Verdict of Each Man Dead. The setting in Utah, the Mormon heartland, adds a nice touch of American exceptionalism to a well-paced plot involving drug dealing and home-grown terrorism.
In the first part of the novel, former FBI special agent and now local homicide detective Henry Pastern investigates the gruesome killing of a couple running a marijuana grow-op on Hollis Street, a half-finished development on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. As Henry, an observant Mormon, and his partner, Phil Mohlman, a hard-drinking Bostonian transplant, interview the neighbours, more questions than answers result. Hollis Street turns out to be home to a patchwork of suspicious and somewhat eccentric residents, who are clearly not telling the detectives the whole truth.
Pastern and Mohlman must also butt heads with Boog DeKlerk, the head of the narcotics squad in order to retain the lead in the investigation. DEA agents also jump in when Avelino Gonzalez, the Beehive State's drug czar, suddenly offers to meet Henry in a remote desert location. The meeting yields little to help Henry in solving the Hollis Street killings, but does reveal an avid and seemingly personal interest of the drug lord in the details of the investigation. Challenged by the increasing complexity of the case, Henry seeks advice from a long-time friend, Peter Cammon, recently retired from Scotland Yard. A flurry of transatlantic e-mails helps Henry unravel at least the first layer of the crime before he is struck with calamity—the death of his wife as a result of the murderer's attempt to cover his tracks. When Cammon arrives on the scene to assist his friend to track down the murderer, he finds Henry in a deep of state self-destructive remorse. The novel quickly takes on a secondary theme of redemption, and not just for Henry.
The Verdict on Each Man Dead is more than an entertaining thriller. It offers fascinating insights into the Church of Latter Days Saints, Mexican drug cartels deeply entrenched in the American West and homegrown American terrorism. Reminiscent of the style of John LeCarré, Whellams' fiction serves as an overlay to little-known historical and social facts. Whellams also scores high on police procedure, as he should after an illustrious career in Canada's Department of Justice. He demonstrates a good command of dialogue, using it subtly to build his characters and avoids the pitfall of over-regionalization of speech patterns. Well-placed action scenes spice up the novel and perk the reader's attention, but some of these scenes could have used a screen writer's touch for greater clarity and sequencing of action. There were a couple of incidences where who was shooting at whom when became an issue.
All in all, Whellams' third novel is a delight to read, especially if you have had to opportunity to travel through the Beehive State with its stunning desert and canyon landscapes and its unique variant of Americana.
And the title? This unique stringing-together of words comes from a Viking poem reminding us of the temporal nature of life and the enduring nature of reputation, a central theme in the novel.
"Wealth dies, Kinsmen die, a man himself must likewise die. But one thing I know that never dies—the verdict on each man dead."
The Verdict on Each Man Dead is published by Toronto's ECW Press.