Dick Lehr (2019) Nothing But The Truth.
The cover is a give-away: ‘A Father Behind Bars/A Daughter Determined to Free Him.’ Obviously I hadn’t been paying attention. I thought the narrator was a young black man. In the Author’s Note, Dick Lehr tells the reader the facts.
‘Nothing But the Truth has its origins in one of Boston’s most notorious murders—the shooting of twelve-year-old Tiffany Moore on a hot summer night in 1988. Tiffany was seated on a blue mailbox in Roxbury, swinging her legs and socializing with friends, when masked gunmen approached. Their targets were boys in a competing street gang, but they hit Tiffany. She died instantly—the youngest victim of street gang violence in the city’s history.’
Police were under immense pressure to get a conviction. There was talk of bringing in the National Guard. They arrested a drug dealer. Shawn Drumgold, aged nineteen. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Lehr was a journalist on The Boston Globe. Spotlight won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of the child sexual abuse scandal in church and schools and the incestuous cover-up that lasted decades.
What he’s done here is mirroring using the doppelganger effect. In other words, the narrator Trell Taylor was a one-year-old baby when her father was convicted of killing a twelve-year-old girl seated on a blue mailbox in Roxbury, swinging her legs and socializing with friends. Trell is now fifteen going on sixteen. She doesn’t doubt her father’s innocence. But in her neighbourhood the residents don’t run to the police for help, but away from them.
This is a coming-of-age and a detective novel in which corruption is taken as a given. And in the school of hard knocks the victims are always poor and expendable. In easy to read chapters and character studies her life story creates momentum. Beginning, Middle and End. Chapter 1, for example, is tagged, Big Vinnie’s Van.
‘The moment the door swung open, I grabbed the chrome bar and pulled myself onto the bus. Right behind me I could hear Ma hitting the steps hard. She didn’t need the bar. I looked back: she even skipped steps.
‘Don’t say it,’ Ma ordered the driver.
Big Vinnie ignored her. ‘Mornin’ Glory,’ he hollered.’
The young reader sticks his or her nose in a book. The fictional characters are already in an easy relationship were they trust each other well enough to needle each other. And they are taking on a journey. Where are we? Who are we? What’s going to happen next? Ma is young enough to skip up the steps.
Trell is going to spring her dad Romero from prison, but she can’t do it alone. She needs helpers. Here we are, Chapter 4, Nora Walsh.
‘She wasn’t our lawyer.’
She will be. She’s the type of lawyer that sees injustice and demands a re-trial. But she’s young and green. The justice system is highly conservative. Nothing changes and even then slowly. Romero’s court-appointed lawyer might have been an alcoholic, who made no attempt to show that the accused had witnesses to show he was somewhere else when the killing took place. He couldn’t be two places at once. But that didn’t matter. Ruled inadmissible.
‘The Next Move,’ the next chapter. They need publicity to publicise the case. But that brings its own kind of heat. Trell needs to get someone like Clemens Bittner on board. He works for The Boston Globe (like award-winning journalist Dick Lehr). But Clemens doesn’t want to come on board. He’s had a tragedy of his own; his son died the same day as the young girl swinging her legs on a box died. Bittner does the nightshift. He wants to drift.
Journalism 101. Curiosity and Persistence. These are the prerequisites of a great reporter. Trell has them in spades. She doesn’t let Bittner by bitter. She needs him to work for her, but also to regain something like a normal life. She needs to bring him back to life too.
Critical Momentum. When the journalist has enough of the story to sketch it out. When s/he reaches Critical Mass the story takes them where the story takes them. Read on.