Living Witness: A Gregor Demarkian Novel Hardcover – Apr 14 2009
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“Haddam does what so many other writers fail to do: tell a story that challenges its readers…[In Living Witness,] the author offers her typically razor-sharp mystery concerning a highly contentious issue, but also does so without taking sides, treating all of her characters ... with respect and understanding. Haddam is a fine writer, exhibiting skills rarely glimpsed in the mystery genre.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Edgar-finalist Haddam's excellent novel takes a nuanced look at the debate over teaching evolution in public schools… Haddam makes characters on both sides of the issue sympathetic, explores the inner life of her detective hero—and offers an ingenious fair-play puzzle.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
From the Back Cover
“RAZOR-SHARP MYSTERY.”—Booklist (starred review)
In every small town there is one person who always sparks controversy, and in Snow Hill, Pennsylvania, that person is Ann-Victoria Hadley. Now this 91-year-old spitfire is igniting a veritable powder keg—when she sues the school board for adding “intelligent design” to its science curriculum. Suddenly the whole town is caught up in a heated debate. But things really explode when, just before the trial, someone attacks Ann-Victoria with a club…
“AN INGENIOUS FAIR PLAY PUZZLE.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
It’s not the first time Ann-Victoria has been attacked for her views. But it’s the only time someone used a blunt object to do it. Now this rebel with a cause is lying in a coma, unable to identify her assailant. The local police chief is on the school board, so he’s a suspect himself and can’t investigate. That’s when former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian steps into the fray—and finds himself matching wits with dueling Darwinists, devout Christians, and one dangerous criminal who’s ready to evolve…to committing murder.
“Jane Haddam’s novels provide style, humor, and philosophy—
they’re real spellbinders.”—Drood Review
Top Customer Reviews
Three literary failings immediately stand out. First, the crime is not interesting. Second, the characters are cardboard cutouts. They are created to mouth Ms. Haddam's not very creative ideas regarding both sides of the debate. To be fair, the characters she has created on either side of the debate are equally nauseating, so she is even-handed there. But her characterization has never gotten off the ground and there isn't an interesting one in the lot. Third, Ms. Haddam makes it clear that she doesn't like small towns in the least and spends a lot of time trashing small town life. Unfortunately, again, she makes no attempt to be humorous or witty in any regard so this seems to be without purpose and certainly doesn't add to the reading experience, especially to one who has chosen to live in small towns all her life and found them fascinating.
But to me, the fatal failing of this book is that she manages to make the evolution-intelligent design (ID) debate dull! Truly an amazing achievement as it is an absorbing and fascinating debate if one takes the time to study it. It touches on all the ultimate questions of life and so is meaningful to all thoughtful people. There is a lot at stake here, but Ms. Haddam has reduced it to a comic book standard.Read more ›
An attack on elderly, yet indomitable, Ann-Victoria Hadley summons ex-FBI agent Gregor Demarkian from Philadelphia to the small town of Snow Hill, PA. Ms. Hadley, now in a coma, was part of a law suit against bringing 'intelligent design' into the school's curriculum. Because the chief of police is a Fundamentalist Christian, he doesn't feel it would be right to lead the investigation. A second attack results in murder and increasing tension across the various factions in the town.
Any book which deals with differing religious views can be both interesting to read and challenging to review. Ms. Haddam does include characters who fall within several camps; evangelicals, fundamentalists, Christians, secular humanists and atheists. She also raises issues of snobbery, peer pressure, ignorance and education. I appreciated reading Ms. Haddam's views on each of these topics and felt she did a very good job integrating them into the plot For the most part, they were presented without blatant bias against the beliefs but rather against the individual character.
This was the first Haddam book I've read but was pleased to find, as far as knowing the primary characters, it didn't matter. Enough back story was provided for Demarkian and his fiancée that I was very comfortable and didn't feel anything was missing. As to the other characters, I should like to have seen a better balance.
Perhaps, however, it was only that those who are extreme in their views seem to predominate whatever environment they are in.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Other than Gregor, it appears that there is not even one sane person who lives in Snow Hill. No wonder Gregor is perpetually bemused by what is going on. Dialogue, or soliquies, which often ramble on for pages are nothing but extended 'rants' against the 'other side'. Advocates of creationism repeat ad nauseam the anti sec - humanist mantra 'If there is no God, then there can be no morals'. while the Darwinists chant that all religion is evil and religious folks are bastions of willful ignorance. Haddam also manages the somehow hold small towns accountable for this kind of narrow minded intellectual insanity.
Everything is extreme in this novel. People speak in shouts, dialogue becomes diatribe. it's just way over the top. Haddams's novels didn't used to be this way, but lately she seems to have let the topic run away with the story and the topic run away with itself.
We don't have Tibor in this book (really the only link Haddam has left with reason and empathy) and the book reads like one long shout about how stupid, narrow minded, angry, or confused people living in a small town are. Sorry, Jane, but this just ain't true and the horses need to be reined in.
Nevertheless, Jane Haddam has written better books. The issue overpowers the story to an extent that is rare in her work, and sometimes the dialogue comes across as little didactic speeches. Fans of her work (and I am one) will find much to enjoy, but if I were asked by someone who hadn't read her before, I would not recommend starting with this book; I'd recommend Somebody Else's Music or Cheating at Solitaire as a better introduction.
Next the question: Since Gregor and Bennis are finally married, will the series continue? Their marriage received less attention than I would have liked, although there was some ingenuity and it was linked into Gregor's reason for taking this case.
Now the problem: Jane Haddam's mysteries include characters of whom she clearly disapproves. This is usually pretty good; she illustrates various popular character faults and disorders in a way that is usually enlightening. Here she tries and fails. Perhaps she just disapproves too much. Perhaps she failed to separate one flaw (incivility) from another (unreason) and so did not nail the characters cleanly. It would be a shame if this were the last of the Demarkian stories because the characters are not so much uninspired as uncrafted. Perhaps she was rushed; this seems to come on the heels of the last book. Perhaps she was so disgusted that she didn't want to put any more of herself into it (she admits her bias in the acknowledgements). Or perhaps she only half understands what she's attempting to portray. She is closer at heart to Bennis than to the coal miners and moonshiners.
I still recommend the book, but it is not Haddam's top tier. And she has not, to my mind, bested Precious Blood or A Stillness in Bethlehem. Still, it is far above Murder Superior (which might be better forgotten) and it is worth an evening.
I know that the usual mystery could be written in a paragraph or two and all the rest is just steganography to stretch it out and make it entertaining, but I really dislike Haddam's prejudice against such people (I'm not one of them, incidentally) and don't find it at all enjoyable to read. Haddam's Johnny-one-note characters aren't engaging, no matter which side they're on. If I want to read irrational ranting on any of the sides of the evolution/creationist/elitism/classism issues, I can find it on the Internet for free, rather than being suckered into paying for it in the guise of a mystery.
Author Jane Haddam
Tags mystery, series, fbi, gregor demarkian, evolution
This is the twenty-fourth in the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam, and the first in the series that I've read. I picked it because I saw a summary that made it clear it is set against a backdrop of a battle over evolution in schools similar to the one that actually took place in Dover, Pennsylvania, which is a big interest of mine.
Demarkian is a second-generation Armenian, who lives in an Armenian neighborhood in Philadelphia. He is a retired FBI agent who now consults with police. He is called into the small town of Snow Hill, Pennsylvania where a 91 year-old resident, Annie-Vic Hadley, is in a coma after being viciously beaten. She is on the school board, and one of the plaintiffs in a case against the rest of the school board, who voted to include stickers in the public school biology textbooks that say that some people don't accept evolution and for more information see a particular book that advocates intelligent design.
As Gregor investigates, another plaintiff is found murdered.
Demarkian finds a town divided. It is not simply fundamentalist Christians against those who support teaching evolution. Snow Hill is on the edge of Appalachia, and the hill people, a slightly less pejorative term for hillbillies, are despised by the townspeople. The townspeople, in turn, are mostly despised by the people in the "development", people who are not native to Snow Hill and for the most part want the town to change to be less provincial and to provide the kind of education tht will get their children into Ivy league schools.
Haddam creates fascinating characters and shows some of their thoughts, and in this way illustrates the differing sides in the turmoil. Some fulfill the stereotypes, such as a couple of the school board members who are willfully ignorant and proud of it; or, conversely, the school principal who is a native of the town but knows evolution is a fact and does not want to dilute teaching that fact. Others are less expected, such as the Holiness preacher who is a hillbilly who loves books, and not just those that come from Christian publishing houses. He has started a church school and is determined that the children of the hill people get a good education in an environment where they are not so despised. Then there is the police chief, a former Marine who calls in Demarkian because he, himself, is a suspect, and who has an act of superhuman bravery in his past.
I've always believed that fiction can tell psychological truths in a way that non-fiction cannot, and Haddam does a good job of proving it. By giving voice to the people of the town, she humanizes the viewpoints of people whose beliefs span a broad range. It isn't always comfortable - for example, she shows that people with my viewpoint can be as fanatical and irrational as those with the opposite view. But it IS enlightening. Haddam, in the after note, explains her own views on the controversy. She believes that evolution is a fact, just as gravity is a fact, even though the mechanisms by which both of these work are not yet completely understood. She is, however, concerned that there is an increasing view that everything that is not science is superstition, and that this view throws out not only what may be good in religion, but in the arts as well.
Did I like the book? Well, I've ordered the first in the series from my local library. You be the judge.