The traditional true-crime novel often takes the form of an introspective look at the criminal, focusing on aberrations in upbringing that might lead to a life of crime. Liza Ward's provocative debut, Outside Valentine, detours intriguingly from this formula, for she delves into the lives not only of her protagonists, but also of the people related to the victims. She dissects not just the horror of these real-life crimes, but the more subtle, rippling effects on those left behind.
Three seemingly unrelated stories set apart in time and place gradually come together as the author reveals relationships previously hidden. In the opening section, set in 1991 Manhattan, the reader meets Lowell, an antiquities dealer who is still troubled by the violent demise of his parents years ago. He avoids interacting with his two grown children, who have finally given up on him, but his wife Susan continues to try to snap him out of his malaise.
Then the scene shifts to 1957 Nebraska, where 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate first meets Charlie Starkweather, standing behind her house with his .22 in his hand a whisper of the way things would go. Months later, the two are captured by police in a barn just outside Valentine, Nebraska, having left a bloody trail of 11 dead, including Caril Ann's mother, baby sister and stepfather. Two years later, a girl nicknamed Puggy and her family move to Lincoln, where Puggy makes friends with a girl whose neighbors were killed by Starkweather. Puggy becomes obsessed with the murders, and with the couple's son, Lowell, who was at boarding school when the tragedy occurred. The author deftly portrays Puggy's feelings of worthlessness when her mother deserts the family, and the reader begins to see similarities with Caril Ann's depressing home situation before Starkweather arrived on the scene.
Ward, who has garnered awards for her short stories, weaves together these three seemingly autonomous plots in intricate ways. In doing so, she has created an evocative tale of the power of love to both create, and destroy. Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.