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David Levien
Where the Dead Lay
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Doubleday / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-385-52367-7
Publication Date: 07-07-2009
309 Pages; $25
Date Reviewed: 07-18-2009

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

Close the book, let the story settle in your mind. All the emotions that may be unleashed as you read will converge, no matter how disparate. Terror, joy, fear. Kinship — the feeling that the characters you've just been reading about are your friends, or could be. As the boundaries between your experience of reading the novel and your memories of reading the novel blur, as the boundaries between your memories of life and those of what you read blur, there's a satisfaction in the story well-told, the arc of experience that simply cannot be duplicated in any other medium.

David Levien's second Frank Behr novel, 'Where the Dead Lay' provides just such an experience. This is a story well-told, with characters across the spectrum that we respect even if we don’t like them. 'Where the Dead Lay' is written with such natural power, is so attuned to the story and the reader, that you might wish you could unread it, just to experience it a second time.

Levien brings back all the best aspects of his first Frank Behr novel, 'City of the Sun.' The prose is still stripped down and a bit rough, yet polished and powerful. Frank Behr is a perfectly wrought iconic PI, the ex-cop with a tragic past that's not overplayed. He's stubborn in a manner that's both appealing and yet verges on self-defeating. Every other character seems equally real; they’re either people you want to know, or people you might have the misfortune to know. Their dreams and aspirations, their plans and goals, all seem to live within a real world, a sort of lower-middle class America where opportunity has a low upper limit.

But in 'Where the Dead Lay,' Levien pulls back the focus, to show us Frank's badly-managed personal life and contrasts it with the lives of a family of criminals who are certainly bad, in every sense, yet — there's an honor at work here, not so much in the characters, though it's there as well, but in the writing itself. Frank's investigations into the death of a friend and the disappearance of two high-priced corporate-style PIs is written with the same sort of respect accorded to all the characters that Frank himself accords to his murdered friend.

'Where the Dead Lay' is a textbook example of excellent writing on all levels. The prose is superb, as is the pacing. Levien's sense of plotting is compelling but never forced or false. He keeps you riveted to the pages with tense set-pieces but there's an organic whole vision that is at work here. The flow is natural and not manipulative, whether Levien is taking the reader through the fascinating world of the "pea shake" shakedown or Frank's conflicted personal life.

There's an integrity to this writing that is undeniable, even as Levien is opening up the world he's created and giving us families in conflict. You'll not forget any of the walking wounded you meet in 'Where the Dead Lay.' When you close the book and let the story settle in your mind, you'll be satisfied in the way that only reading, only life can manage. Bluntly, somewhat blindly — but with honor.

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