Locust Lane by Stephen Amidon book review


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Over the past three decades, Stephen Amidon has produced novels as compulsively readable as they are hard-edge, about such uncomfortable facts of American life as race, class and money. His latest, “Locust Lane,” adheres to this bracing tradition with the story of a young woman killed in the affluent Boston suburb of Emerson and the ugly truths about several of its elite denizens that come to light in the murder’s wake.

The victim is 20-year-old Eden Perry, who had a history of shoplifting and sketchy boyfriends, though she had recently started working as live-in help for an older couple, “country-club types” who are distant relatives. Eden’s mother, Danielle, agreed to the arrangement, so she could get a needed break from her good-hearted but turbulent daughter. But after Eden’s death, Danielle finds out that her daughter had buddied up to some of the local high school students by throwing parties when her employers were away. On the night of the murder, three of these kids were with Eden.

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The police immediately focus on Christopher Mahoun, whose father, Lebanese immigrant Michel, runs a fancy restaurant in town. Christopher had an unreciprocated crush on Eden, and he admits to staying with her after the other two teens, Jack Parrish and Hannah Holt, had left. But Jack and Hannah are hiding something about that night as well. Indeed, it seems that everyone in Emerson possesses a guilty secret, bears the scars of a past emotional trauma or both. They don’t devolve into caricatures, because, as in his previous books, Amidon creates fully fleshed characters who are by no means admirable, or even especially likable, but are always recognizably human.

He expertly unfolds his tale through five sets of anxious adult eyes, opening with an unwitting witness to the murder’s aftermath who hesitates about going to the police, because he wasn’t exactly sober at the time. Patrick, in the process of drinking himself out of his job at a wealth management firm, connects with Danielle through their shared grief; his daughter died two years earlier from drugs, and he still hears her voice speaking to him. Danielle provides an outsider’s view of Emerson to supplement the accounts of Hannah’s stepmother, Alice, and Jack’s mother, Celia, insiders’ wives and best friends at the outset who fall out bitterly when Alice concludes that it’s Jack, not Christopher, who killed Eden. Alice has never been pleased about Hannah dating Jack, particularly after learning that his parents had paid off a previous girlfriend who accused him of getting rough with her.

Celia’s husband, Oliver, is one of Emerson’s wealthiest and most powerful men, and when he learns that Alice is accusing their son, he exacts ruthless revenge, exposing her party-girl past and an ongoing affair with Michel that blows up her marriage to Hannah’s father. Celia justifies this by telling herself that they must protect Jack, doing her best to suppress discomfiting memories of her son’s unsettled inner life. Michel provides the fifth point of view, slowly realizing how tenuous his position in Emerson actually is as it becomes increasingly clear that his son is going to be charged with murder.

“Michel, let me explain something to you,” says Christopher’s lawyer. “A white girl just got killed in a three-million-dollar house in a place where there’s one murder a decade. Somebody’s going to have to be guilty of this, and quickly. The only mysteries these people allow are the ones they control.”

Racist social media comments about Christopher make it clear that, although he is the son of a French-educated Maronite Catholic, he might as well be a Muslim terrorist as far as Emerson is concerned; a Brown boy makes a much more attractive culprit than a White scion of privilege. But Christopher has secrets, too, and Amidon provides twist after twist as the revelations about what really happened that night grow more sordid and sad. He whipsaws readers’ suspicions among characters while deftly planting clues to the actual killer in plain sight.

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Yes, we do find out whodunit — and it’s a great aha moment — but that doesn’t necessarily mean the perpetrator will be caught or punished. Amidon’s decidedly bleak denouement sends several characters to grim destinies they only partly deserve and shows justice definitely not being served. A touching final scene, seasoned with a dash of mysticism that comes as a surprise from a writer known for gritty realism, offers readers a ray of hope. It can’t entirely lighten the pervasive darkness with which Amidon has so skillfully blanketed Emerson and its inhabitants, but it reminds us that even flawed human beings are capable of surprising acts of generosity and redemption.

Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”

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