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A Brilliant Death


A Brilliant Death

First, before I start telling you why you absolutely must read A BRILLIANT DEATH, I will make a full disclosure. Robin Yocum and I live in the same small community, one that a few decades ago bore more than a faint resemblance to Brilliant, Ohio, where most of what transpires in this book takes place. I have never met the man, though I am very familiar with his work, given that he had a long journalistic run as an investigative and crime reporter for our local metropolitan newspaper. Our spouses/significant others/children have not knowingly interacted, either. In other words, neither an accident of geography nor a happenstance of acquaintance have unduly influenced what follows.

A BRILLIANT DEATH is one of those conundrums --- a mystery novel for those who hate mysteries, yet one that could and should be embraced by aficionados of the genre. It’s a mystery, yes, but wrapped in a fine, perfectly executed coming-of-age story set in a small town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border over three decades ago. Yocum grew up in Brilliant, and that fact, combined with his considerable writing chops, makes the book read more like a true crime story than a work of fiction. More on that in a minute.

"Exquisitely plotted, wonderfully written, and with the best closing line I’ve read in a book this year, A BRILLIANT DEATH is indeed brilliant."

The narrator here is Mitch Malone, who, as the book opens in 1971, has just graduated from high school and is attending the funeral of Travis Baron, his best friend. Mitch then drops back in time a bit, showing without telling the reader the contrasts in the boys’ lives. While Mitch was brought up in a loving family by his mother and father, Travis was raised in de facto absentia by his brutal father, who showed little to no interest in him almost from the day he was born. Travis’ mother is another story. She disappeared under mysterious circumstances in a boating accident while in the company of “a male companion,” as delicately reported at the time. Travis is almost a part of Mitch’s family, and the two are as close as brothers, which is why Travis, as he enters full-throttle adolescence, enlists Mitch’s help when he decides to investigate the whys, whens and wherefores of what happened to his mother.

As I read Mitch’s description of the investigation in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone years of the early 1970s, I was reminded of the original Hardy Boys series, which still holds a place of honor on my bookshelves. Yes, A BRILLIANT DEATH is that good, and as the boys’ conduct their search for the truth and overcome limitations --- at one point, they have to ask Mitch’s parents for permission to do something --- they inch forward, ever forward, to the fate of Travis’ mother, as Travis uncovers truths about her and about himself that he otherwise never would have known. The boys also exhibit a loyalty and maturity that you would not expect given their age, as one of them makes a sacrifice for the other that will affect both for years --- indeed, decades --- to come.  

I don’t want this one to get past you. I know, there are so many books and so little time. But it is so deserving of your lucre and attention. Exquisitely plotted, wonderfully written, and with the best closing line I’ve read in a book this year, A BRILLIANT DEATH is indeed brilliant.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 22, 2016

A Brilliant Death
by Robin Yocum