Tidewater Review - January 2010


January Page-Turners


Anne Stinson

In Their Blood by Sharon Potts. Oceanview Publishing. 360 pp. $25.95.
    Jeremy Stroeb could be the poster child for the bratty, spoiled rich kid who dodges responsibility. He’s spent the last year bumming around Europe, not interested in going to college, going to work or doing any of the things his parents expected him to do. In fact, his parents and kid sister have just returned home from abroad, where they tried to persuade him to come home with them, retire his backpack and get on with his life. His reply was a definite “No way.”
    They didn’t have long to be disappointed in their fruitless errand. An intruder unlocked their front door, went upstairs at midnight and shot them both to death in their bed. Their daughter Elise, age 16, had snuck out to see her boyfriend and missed being the third victim.
    The murdered couple had been well-liked and successful; dad was a tenured professor at the local university, a free-thinker who sometimes riled the school’s president and board of directors with his lectures and papers on the ethics of some generous benefactors, and his activism for liberal causes on campus. Mom was a CPA, a partner in a respected accounting firm. She was adored by her neighbors, friends and colleagues. They had no enemies.
    Elise and her boyfriend discovered the bodies, a scene that traumatized the girl. In the ensuing week she stayed alone in the house, haunted by terrible nightmares and the feeling that the killer would be after her next. Jeremy, in the meantime, was upset by the quarrel with his parents and had made himself unreachable by turning off his cell phone and losing himself in Portugal. A whole week passed before he texted Elise and was tracked down to hear of his parents’ deaths.
    He flew home immediately to find that his parents’ memorial service was over and a reception was being hosted by a neighbor, Elise’s boyfriend Carlo’s parents. Uncle Dwight, Jeremy’s dad’s ne’er-do-well younger brother, had appointed himself the man in charge. He had made the decision to proceed with the church service before Jeremy arrived. He told Jeremy that his father’s will named him, Dwight, guardian of Elise in case of their deaths. Uncle Dwight was prepared to move up socially and financially by moving into their house.
    Jeremy was tempted to leave and vanish incognito into Europe again, but realized that both he and Elise loathed Uncle Dwight. It would be too cruel to make her deal with him when she was already in severe grief without her parents.
    Jeremy was true to form, i.e., willful and arrogant. He alienated the detectives working to solve the murders and decided to track down the culprit himself. He doesn’t have a clue about any secrets his parents may have hidden. He only knows that both of their private laptops are missing. He needs to know if they had any enemies.
    He enrolls at the university to check out his dad’s colleagues and the grad students he mentored. He also asks for and gets an internship in his late mother’s accounting firm to look for any private papers she may have filed there.
    The cocksure rich kid soon grasps a hint that he’s not as smart as he thought he was. The police have already sifted all the evidence Jeremy thinks is new. They already know his father was not quite the straight arrow Jeremy always assumed he was. The detectives know that dear old dad was, at the time of his death, trying to transfer his most brilliant grad student to another university. That matters: Jeremy has fallen in love with her. And why has the accounting firm shoved him into a warehouse of decades-old files to be sorted?
    Only one factor keeps Jeremy on the trail - Elise’s memory is coming back. Why was the front door standing open when Carlo walked her home? Who ever heard of a burglar having the house key to his victim’s front door? What kind of intruder carries a shotgun, the weapon that killed his parents?
    Author Sharon Potts is devilish in her ability to toy with the reader’s head. This reader had figured out the mystery of whodunit by the second chapter of this clever thriller. Clues throughout the entire chase were subtle, but to the discerning reader, damning enough for a clear case of guilt.
    Try again, amateur sleuths. Some suspects are not evil, just stupid. Ugly characters may have beautiful souls, it turns out. Well, some of them do. Heh-heh. The ending will knock off the reader’s socks, so unexpected is it.
    No thanks to Jeremy, he’s a winner. So is gentle Elise, who’s found a better brother than she thought she lost. This book will keep the reader awake past lights-out.

“Then Madden said to Summerall...” by Matthew Shepatin. Triumph Books. 218 pp. $22.95
    Full disclosure demands that this book took your reviewer longer to read than any other tome in years. Not being a football fan, my only contact with John Madden’s reputation was from radio broadcasts when the men of the house couldn’t watch games on television - either in the car or on a sailboat - but were unwilling to miss a game. Madden’s partner at the microphone for 22 of the 30 years they shared running commentary was Pat Summerall, the smooth, understated pro who made listeners see the game, TV or not. Madden, on the other hand, was the “color” man, the endless bearer of the offbeat, the funny story, the locker room hijinks, the off-the-field escapades of players. Both men were walking, talking professors of the sport with references to just about every outstanding play in every memorable game since at least the 1930s.
    For a non-fan, reading the book was like translating Urdu into English. Shepatin’s insider summation of the pigskin pontiffs is so beguiling, so brilliantly presented that this reader’s ordinary role as provider of beer and snacks, not attention, was introduced to the fascination of the game. He makes the subtlety of football as mesmerizing as the brutality.
    He disabused me of believing, as a friend once put it, that football is “a series of committee meetings followed by spasms of violence.”
    Even so, while this non-fan knew vaguely what a “Hail Mary” pass was, it was hard to define a “flea-flicker.” No matter. A male friend assured me that even if I were a die-hard football fanatic I’d be unlikely to ever see a flea-flicker in a game. He gave me the “Football For Idiots” explanation and said it’s rarely used because it usually fails. Whew! One less refinement to learn.
    Author Shepatin uses a sensible, easy-to-follow arrangement for this tutorial in the sport. Neophytes as well as stadium veterans will appreciate the division of chapters to detail the roles of participants on and off the field. He begins with “The Gunslingers,” quarterbacks, “The Generals,” owners and coaches, “The Big Gamers,” the players who don’t fold in a tight spot, “The Playmakers,” the celebrities on and off the field, “The Punishers: Defense” and “The Punishers: Offense,” of which both divisions could be called “The Bruisers, Killers and Beasts.” At the end of each chapter is an interview, usually with Madden, with one of the colorful stars in the battles onfield.
    To pick out a single quote from the book would be an impossibility. The traits that make football players the best in their craft are (thank God) not those of ordinary men. They absorb punishment in routine contact that would make most men pale with fear. And as Shepatin has chosen from a wealth of examples, they sometimes are as daring in the face of peril as heroes. And easily more funny. Madden seems to have had a genius for persuading his interviewees to be hilarious as well as candid.
    A random pick of quotes illustrates the entertainment Shepatin extracted from a vast amount of material: A chat with Jack Lambert, the middle linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, paints a vivid snapshot of a huge guy with a gap-toothed smile and take-no-prisoners attitude. He froze opponents with fear of the mayhem he could inflict when he stopped them.
    The chapters on The Punishers are the most chilling for the mind-set of both the offensive and defensive lines. Jack Tatum’s reputation suggested that he attempted to put anyone in his way “in a body bag.” Dick Butkis is described as having a weekly binge of violence. “Knocking off the Chicago bears wasn’t the real challenge,” one opponent said of him, “It was getting off the field before Butkis separated your head from your body.”
    The book is studded with great photographs of many of the major talents, plus boxed readouts of episodes related to the one narrated, often a historical precedent to the action.
    It’s almost impossible to overpraise this treatment of a national obsession, professional football. If you’re not already a fan, prepare to be converted.