To Account for Murder
By William C. Whitbeck
The Permanent Press, $28
By Elizabeth Kane Buzzelli
Murder and politics made uneasy bedfellows back in the Michigan of 1945. It was a time, just after World War II, when governmental corruption ran wide and deep through the state; when contracts went to the one who most generously greased a palm or two; and when deals were hammered out in Lansing clubs and bars, and in backrooms where whiskey flowed and paid-for women freely entertained.
Then came crusaders like Judge Leland Carr and special prosecutor Kim Sigler, who later became governor of Michigan, with subpoenas and indictments flying in all directions, shaking up the Purple Gang -- which was behind a lot of the corruption -- and the politicians happily at home in the gangsters pockets.
State Senator Warren Green Hooper, of Albion, got caught up in the widely thrown net and was set to testify before the one-man grand juror when he was found shot three times in the head, dead in his car, parked beside M-99.
Members of the Purple Gang went to prison for the murder, but the man who ordered the murder never spent a day in jail. This, even as reporters assigned to cover the story earned Pulitzers for their articles and one-third of the state legislature was, at one time, under indictment.
It is from this intriguing background of a true Michigan murder that the current Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals, William C. Whitbeck, has set a mystery in which he uses the 1945 murder of a state senator as the jumping off place for his novel, To Account for Murder.
Whitbecks imaginary characters are set against the ins and outs of Lansings legal and political world. He draws heavily on his background among lawyers, crooks, and the innocent who appear before him, to give a portrait of a world rarely drawn with the precision we get here. The judge not only takes the reader through all the historical underbelly of gang/politician coziness but into the places and times when men were corrupted, and warnings were followed with murder.
In To Account for Murder, Charlie Cahill is back from fighting in World War II, minus his left arm lost to a German machine gun, and without his father, who had been killed while running alcohol across the Detroit River during prohibition. Charlie is an attorney looking for a job in Lansing. Hes already been caught up in the murder of his lovers husband and now becomes a part of the team investigating that very murder. The investigation takes him to places he never wanted to go, and exposes his own corruption as he works to get someone else convicted of the murder he abetted.
Cahill, at the beginning of the book, is on his deathbed, but with this chilling story to tell. The novel moves from November, 1996, back in time to those post-war days, back to the death of the state senator, and back into murky maneuverings through Lansings corridors of government right up to an ending that is a surprise not only for Cahill but for others around him.
As with all books where the writer has a particular and intimate knowledge of places or peoplesuch as Aaron Standers Shelf Ice, Mardi Links Isadores Secret, Fleda Browns Driving with Dvorak, or Elmore Leonards stories of Detroitit is Whitbecks knowledge of the lawthe intricacies and arcane twiststhat set this book apart, moving it from surprising twist to compelling turn.
The judge knows his territory and mines it well, delivering a deft mystery which seems not only close in time but in subject matter. Corruption never grows old. Not in the minds of those who read about it nor in the short memories of those who commit it.
The last judge to write a ringing story of lust and murder in Michigan was Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker and his Anatomy of a Murder. That novel was also loosely based on a true murder case and eventually became a widely acclaimed 1959 movie starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and Ben Gazzara.
To Account for Murder was recently chosen as one of the Michigan Libraries Notable Books for 2010, for its depiction of a Michigan murder and as an addition to the states history by a prominent jurist.
Elizabeth Kane Buzzellis next mystery, Dead Dogs and Englishmen will be out from Midnight Ink in May, 2011.