"To Account for Murder" by William C. Whitbeck

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I read where “To Account for Murder” was an on-again, off-again labor for William C. Whitbeck over a couple of decades. The result, Mr. Whitbeck’s debut work of fiction, stands as a combination historical novel, thriller, and political exposé. Mr. Whitbeck, himself a high-ranking Michigan appellate judge and close confidant to more than one Michigan governor, knows whereof he speaks. His research into the corrupt legal and political environment of Detroit and Lansing before and after World War II must have been exhaustive, given the detail here.

“To Account for Murder” delves into the sordid and appalling particulars of the political corruption charges and counter-charges of the time – this forms the bulk of the book – and wraps a personal-history yarn around it for presentation’s sake. Perhaps he should have played the legal procedure card less, and the character-development card more. As I started this, the conscienceless, ruthless ambition on all sides rings true (I have some first-hand experience in the political arena), but as the machinations and the murders mount up, I grew numb to it. Mr. Whitbeck’s compulsion to get it all down on paper costs his plot and his characters a measure of reality, and the cardboard-cutout aspect of his characters takes over. Likewise, I find legal procedures fairly easy to follow in fiction, but the book portrays so many in-court and ex parte moves, motions, and counter-motions, ranging from simple persuasion to murder and blackmail, that they lose their immediacy and generate little tension.

The author does manage one nuanced character: the first-person narrator Charlie Cahill, who has little trouble ignoring his conscience – at least he has one to ignore. He also has a haunting personal history, in which he relives the terror of the D-Day invasion. In an interesting device, our narrator confesses to the reader that he has killed the infamous state Senator, and needs to direct the investigation away from himself and the murder victim’s wife, whom he loves. This, however, may only be a trick played on the reader, but that would hardly be fair, would it, given the mileage other characters make from it throughout the narrative.

I do appreciate the author's inclusion of a pithy thematic statement, put in the mouth of the central character, the prosecutor who would be governor: on leaving a saloon packed with legislators and lobbyists, he says, "You could empty a 12-guage in there and not harm an honest man." The reader will begin to wonder how Michigan’s government ever made it through the period, so pervasive is the corruption on display here.
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