Sunday, March 2, 2014

Known DeadKnown Dead by Donald Harstad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe it is a little misleading to call Donald Harstad's "Known Dead" a novel. It does not have that much in common with a work of literature. I would categorize it as a well-written police report, a detailed day-by-day, and often minute-by-minute report on solving an extremely complex and involved case of finding cop killers in a rural Iowa county. In a sense, "Known Dead" is an ultimate police procedural or rather a "sheriff procedural" as the case is being reported by Carl Houseman, a deputy sheriff. He is working on solving the case in collaboration with - or more often against - several other agencies, including the FBI.

Utmost realism is the best feature of this book. Donald Harstad is a long-time veteran of the Sheriff's department in an Iowa county, and he knows what he is writing about. The descriptions of two shootouts in this book, in Chapter 1 and in Chapter 13, are markedly different from what we have been accustomed to from hundreds of books and movies. Here, no one knows what is going on during a shootout. Total confusion and chaos reign and virtually everything what happens is random. This is how the best "true crime" books describe how crimes are committed in real life. Totally different than how they are portrayed in Hollywood movies or in popular police procedural novels, with their carefully choreographed violence. In real life very little goes as planned by the bad guys or the good guys.

Another strong feature of the book is that it shows the extreme amount of bureaucracy and organizational overhead, particularly in situations when interests of several agencies cross. Most of an agency's effort is spent not on solving the case but on preventing the other agencies from solving it.

The title is pretty cool too. It comes from the phrase "Two known dead!" uttered by hysteric reporters: at least two people are dead. Of course, the reporters hope for many more because the news would sell better. The phrase also plays a role in the remarkably realistic ending.

An interesting, informative, and worthwhile book, even if it does not qualify as literature.

Almost four stars.

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