For a college English class, Joe Talbert has to interview an elderly person and write a biography. Unfortunately, most of the residents at Hillview Manor near Minneapolis suffer from Alzheimer’s or dementia. Except one – Carl Iverson, a murderer. Thirty years ago, Carl was convicted of raping and killing a 14 year-old girl and then setting fire to the wooden shack where he had stashed her body. Now dying of pancreatic cancer, Carl is granted parole and sent to live out his remaining days at Hillview. Initially hesitant, Joe finally decides that Carl probably has a helluva story to tell.
Before Joe meets Carl, he does his research about the murder of Crystal Marie Hagan. The crime certainly was horrific, painting the perpetrator as a monster. Joe braces himself for meeting Carl but his fears are soon put aside. Carl, suffering from stage four cancer, is docile, resigned to his fate. While he’s been approached before to tell his life story, he’s never agreed. At their first meeting, Carl says that what he tells Joe will serve as a dying declaration, the idea being that a dying person “would not want to die with a lie on his lips.” Joe believes he will hear a confession, especially after Carl tells him: “I’ve killed and I’ve murdered,” adding, “there is a difference.”
Carl fought in Vietnam, so Joe understands the “kill” part of his statement. But did he also murder someone, specifically Crystal? As Joe begins to learn more, he begins to believe that Carl may be innocent. But if Carl didn’t kill the young girl, who did?
What begins as a simple English assignment morphs into a murder investigation that threatens not only Joe, but also Lila, a fellow college student who lives in his building and becomes drawn into his project. Joe’s family situation – his mother is an alcoholic unable to care for her other son, Jeremy, who is autistic – complicates matters. Is Carl truly innocent? And, if so, will Joe be able to prove it before Carl dies? The race is on.
Investigating a cold case is a popular theme in police procedurals. Author Allen Eskens uses this plot device in a clever way, allowing the convicted killer to tell his story. The exchanges between Carl and Joe are riveting. Carl’s story unwinds slowly so that the reader is able to absorb that facts along with Joe. Yes, Carl was a war hero. But what he so damaged by what he experienced in. Vietnam that he returned to the U.S. and became a killer?
Aside from reopening a murder inquiry, The Life We Bury is also about families. Joe has his hands full, balancing school, trying to start a relationship with Lila, and serving as a caretaker for both his mother and brother. Joe understands family loyalty, specifically how far someone will go to protect a family member. That knowledge will help him get to solve Crystal’s murder, keeping us on the edge of our seats until the end.
The Life We Bury
Top Bigstock photo: Snow covered shack on a frigid Minnesota winter day