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Senior Correspondent

Guest’s Keen Eye for Family Dynamics Drives Murder Mystery

Book Review

"The Tarnished Eye" by Judith Guest (New York, N.Y.: Scribner, 2004)

Judith Guest is best known for her novel "Ordinary People," which tackles the theme of a terrible family tragedy and a teenager's suicidal inclinations. Like that novel, "The Tarnished Eye," although a murder mystery, shows the author's exceptional ability to display the complicated fabric of family life through strong characterizations of each family member.

For this novel, she drew partially from a still-unsolved crime in which six members of one family were brutally murdered in a small vacation town in Michigan. The fictional sheriff, a thoughtful family man named Hugh Dewitt, must take on the baffling case even though he is still grieving over the SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) loss of his young son several years before. He's a no-nonsense, experienced, second-generation cop who knows the involved, exhausting and often frustrating investigation procedures that lie ahead in a sensational case like this.

One thing I have never seen in a murder mystery is a chapter devoted to each of the six victims. Dialogue and action provide a telling portrait of each person and interactions with others in the family. When the whole family is brutally wiped out, we know each person. These personal chapters are cleverly interspersed with narrative chapters that move the story forward. Nevertheless, the pace of the novel in the first half is not rapid, or unable to be put down by the reader — yet. Later the action picks up and fulfills all expectations of a page-turner.

DeWitt runs into all the undesirable features of an investigation — uncooperative potential friends and neighbors of the slain family, overworked fellow cops who are immersed in a concurrent rash of coed murders at the university in Ann Arbor, people who know more than they will tell, and seedy town characters willing to tell more than they know. The action takes place in the fierce heat of summer, making everyone involved uncomfortable and sometimes short-tempered.

With the pressures of the crime investigation and a public demanding an arrest, DeWitt is unable to separate the image of the young girl in the slain family with his own daughter's taking part in what he considers a high-risk situation — a summer camp with horseback riding. To him, the wild-eyed beast his daughter is set to ride looks the size of an elephant. In addition, there is a troubling problem in the physical side of his marriage.

Other than DeWitt's wife, Karen, being somewhat too good to be true, Guest's characters beautifully illustrate the human condition and make for an absorbing tale and a good read. This is the first of her novels that I have read, but there are four others, and I'm looking forward to more, convinced any one would be rewarding. "Ordinary People," for instance, her first novel, won a literary prize and, as a film, won the Oscar for best picture in 1980.

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