by Nan GoldbergSeptember, 1998
Normally, when I read a book I either like it or I don't like it. I don't usually feel like inviting its author over for a pajama party. But this one had that effect on me. I'd never read anything by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith before, I'm sorry to say, but I think I've got a crush on her.
An American Killing is a murder mystery/thriller, narrated by a true-crime writer clearly based on the real-life crime writer Ann Rule (who, I bet, never figured she'd turn up as the protagonist of a novel). Rule, like the heroine of An American Killing, was a journalist whose longtime office buddy was arrested for a mass murder. In Rule's case the friend and murder suspect was Ted Bundy; in the novel his name is different, but the details of the murders are pretty much the same. The arrest changed Rule's life: at first convinced that a tragic error had been made, she decided to look into the case, and was deeply shaken to discover there'd been no mistake. She became fascinated by the idea that there are people who are evil inside, but who look and act just like you and me. She wrote a book about the Bundy case kind of a true-crime version of Hannah Arrendt's book The Banality of Evil about the trial of Adolph Eichman. Rule's book was a bestseller and led to a series of true-crime books that explored the same ground one about a mother who shoots her own children; another about a poisoner. Denise Burke's career, in An American Killing, has been identical, up until now. This case is different: this one investigates a triple murder for which an innocent man is framed. In addition to her professional life, Denise is also married to a key member of the Clinton administration. (Hillary Clinton calls her occasionally to ask stuff like, what do regular mothers wear to school on Parents' Day?) She's got a complicated history, two teenage kids, a dog, a large house with a dining room in dire need of redecorating, and a summer place in Rhode Island. She manages this female I-can-have-everything-and-do-it-brilliantly prototype with humor, a heartwarming lack of efficiency, and exactly the right amount of cynicism. At one point it's got to be either the dining room or the affair with the Rhode Island congressman, and she chooses the congressman probably, in retrospect, a bad choice. Still, that choice sets in motion the series of events that frame this book.
Plot aside (and I don't mean to downplay it the plot is good), there is a sensibility at work here that is clear-eyed, contemporary, and incredibly charismatic. Tirone Smith has written four other novels. Prepare, as I will, to hunt them up and read them. And, Mary-Ann, if you're ever in New Jersey, definitely call.
Nan Goldberg is a freelance writer in Hackensack, New Jersey.