Friday, April 03, 2020

The Book You Have to Read:
“Not Dead Yet,” by Daniel Banko

(Editor’s note: This is the 162nd installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Mild-mannered Matthew Kitterman is a self-effacing businessman from Boston, whose life is turned upside down when he returns home prematurely to the “vague aroma of animal rut” and finds his wife, Lana, hosting a party of naked revelers. Shocked, he snaps a polaroid and flees. But violence ensues when one prominent guest believes Lana plans to blackmail him. Lana shoots that man dead (probably in self-defense), and the next thing Kitterman knows is that he’s been falsely accused of murder and is on the run.

It sounds like pretty standard “you’ve-got-the-wrong-man” stuff. But in 1972’s Edgar Award-nominated Not Dead Yet, author Daniel Banko subtly turns the reading experience into one of reader participation—which all mysteries and whodunits are, really, but in this book it’s different. The way information is revealed here allows readers to feel the desperation and confusion that the characters themselves feel, not just to empathize with their predicaments. Paging through Not Dead Yet, you actually experience butterflies, uneasiness, and an odd sense of detachment from safety, making this novel more of a thriller, rather than one in which a crime is expected to be solved. The clues are in front of readers just as they are in front of Kitterman, but sometimes they’re nestled so deeply into the background that one needs to read thoroughly and imaginatively to see them.

Other clues come in the form of enormous tropes—almost like standing at the foot of Mount Everest and seeing only snow—as when a landlocked sailor named Clyde, waiting to ship out, joins the chaotic and quixotic group of misfits and drifters Kitterman falls in with. With the arrival of Clyde, Kitterman’s figurative ship has come in, for later in this book Clyde proves to be Kitterman’s most able cohort. Before Clyde becomes indispensable to Kitterman’s mission, though, the Most Valuable Player Award goes to an adrift widow, Mildred Molnar.

A drinker, and a believer in Kitterman’s innocence, Mildred is a woman looking for adventure and a cause. Her sole goal upon waking up beside a blacked-out Kitterman after their first meeting is to assist in exonerating him. Mildred spent her married life tending to an alcoholic husband who worked in Hollywood, and she’s as game as they get. “I’ve always wanted to be in a movie instead of just looking at one,” she says, and Mildred gets her wish here.

There were eyewitnesses to wife Lana’s crime, of course, but in straight-laced Boston, swingers who have no problem getting it on with strangers in private wouldn’t be disposed to unveil their kinks in an open court of law. Finding that one person who can identify the killer is chore number one, if Kitterman is to obtain a get-out-of-jail-free card; so on the advice of a psychic friend of Mildred’s, the next stop is to assemble a team and re-create the crime scene, with what evidence they already have. Kitterman does have a substantial lead, and that is the dead man’s wallet, in which he finds the business card of a Boston travel agent named Mueller. On the back of the card are several phone numbers, one being that of Kitterman’s home. Mueller appears to be a panderer; does that mean the additional numbers on the card belong to that fatal night’s other witnesses?

Solving this crime sounds like a layup shot, but what would be the point of that? Many people find danger and risk exciting, though it be second-hand. The thrill and anticipation that author Banko constructs is felt and shared with his readers.

Returning to Boston, Kitterman’s group sets up headquarters in a building across the street from his apartment and begins the search for that one crucial eyewitness. Just when their best candidate literally comes into arm’s reach, however, he bolts ... and it’s back to the beginning for everyone.

Now, one more thing about Banko’s images pointing readers and characters in the right direction. Without saying too much, let me just suggest that readers would be wise to not let the slightest detail here pass without some amount of scrutiny. When Kitterman figures out why the pigeons that nest on the roof of his building circle and circle and refuse to return to roost, then the mystery is solved.

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