Dr Paul Allen, a successful rheumatologist living with his second wife and their twins sons in suburban New York, has a good life. Then all that changes one night as the family sit together to eat pizza and watch television. The front-running presidential candidate Jay Seagram, a man America has pinned its hopes on, is shot dead. The knock at the door comes quickly (both for Allen and for the reader). Allen’s son from his first marriage, Danny, has been arrested for the shooting having been caught on film with the gun in his hand. The story follows the ramifications of Danny’s arrest for Allen and his family as they struggle to understand how the boy who wouldn’t even kill a fly has become America’s latest political assassin. Allen, convinced despite overwhelming evidence that his son must be innocent, becomes consumed with his investigation into the period of Danny’s life from the day he dropped out of college to take a road trip around America, to the day of the shooting.
During the course of the story Allen questions every decision he’s ever made regarding his parenting of Danny using his diagnostic skills as a doctor to find the root cause of the problem. Was it the divorce from Danny’s mother when he was only seven? The fact that after that, Allen moved as far as possible away from him, leaving California for New York spending only holidays with his son? What does it actually mean to be a good father? And should he even be looking for a reason behind Danny’s supposed crime or is that simply a way of trying to make what he did reasonable and therefore justifiable? Could anyone do this given the right motivation? As the story unfolds and Allen becomes more paranoid suspecting hidden forces at work coercing his son into committing this outrage, Danny’s character starts to unfold and we witness the changes in him as he drifts across America changing his name to Carter Allen Cash in the process.
This is a good story. It’s fast paced right from the start. Hawley gives us just enough back story and setting to place us exactly where he wants us and then hits us only fifteen pages in, with the act that changes Allen’s whole world. It comes as no surprise to your reviewer that Hawley is a screenwriter (as well as a film and television producer, composer and writer of three previous novels). Hawley is at his best when describing visual action. This has the feel of a film immediately; the structures there and we feel safe and secure knowing that the story is going to unfold just as we expect it to. My only criticism of this work is that Hawley has obviously done a lot of research into other high profile killers and the narrative is interspersed with these other stories. Hawley structures these by trying to make us feel that it is Allen who is doing this research as part of his attempt to understand what has happened to his son, but, for your reviewer, it doesn’t work. We know it’s Hawley and we also know that it gets in the way of the real story, the one we want to read, the reason we picked up this book. I wish Hawley had just gone with his own story rather than fleshing it out with these excerpts because his story is gripping and these sections just slow the narrative.
This book asks a lot of questions about the role of parents in the raising of their children and the answers aren’t always that comfortable. Allen asks himself what Danny’s done, but he knows, and we know, that he’s really asking himself that question and at the same time forcing his readers to do the same. This is a book about judgement, Allen’s own and also society’s. It’s no coincidence that Allen and his family is shunned just as much as Danny is. We do blame the parents. The question is whether we should, or should totally, or whether we need to accept that people have free will and will act in the ways they do because that’s just what people do. Sometimes there just isn’t a reason. After all not every child from a ‘broken home’ commits murder. With rising divorce levels, however, this timely book will hit a nerve with divorcing couples anxious to prevent their decisions wrecking their child’s life. Allen’s refusal to accept Danny’s possible guilt adds to the emotional tug of the story. Danny won’t talk to him about what happened and refuses Allen’s requests to launch an appeal. It seems to us (and to Danny who eventually refuses to see him) that this is just one more incident in a long catalogue where Allen fails his son. Hawley keeps us guessing right to the end as to whether or not Allen will redeem himself and accept and love his son for the man he is, rather than the one he wants or expects him to be.
Allen also faces a very modern dilemma. Which of his two families is more important? The son (and ex wife) he abandoned or his new wife and two young sons that need him now more than ever? Does he try and save one at the expense of the other? A particularly searing section of the story occurs when the teenage Danny asks Allen if he can come and live with him and his new family for a while. Hawley doesn’t shy from showing us Allen’s response: that for a moment, however brief, he doesn’t want to disturb the peace and stability of his new life and wants to say no. In that pause we see Allen with all his human frailty and it’s heartbreakingly believable.
Any Cop?: Absolutely yes. This is an honest and thoughtful page turner about the responsibilities of being a parent. For all of Allen’s running around America looking for answers, the solution is perhaps quite simple: you’ve just got to be there for your child.