Friday, April 8, 2016

The Ancient RainThe Ancient Rain by Domenic Stansberry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!"

In April 1975 members of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the group notorious for Patty Hearst kidnapping that happened a year earlier, robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento, California. During the robbery a customer of the bank, Myrna Opsahl, was accidentally shot and killed. This actual tragic event provides the setup for Domenic Stansberry’s fictional crime story / legal drama The Ancient Rain (2008), whose plot takes place in 2002 and deals with the long-delayed aftermath of this politically motivated robbery.

This is my first book by this celebrated author, Edgar Award winner for The Confession and Hammett Award finalist, and indeed it is a solid, compulsively readable, and - most importantly - well-written novel. I much prefer this book over cliché-ridden novels by John Grisham, mainly because of the palpable political and social contexts of the plot that provide depth usually missing in Grisham's books. I am quite eager to read other books by Mr. Stansberry.

Dante Mancuso, an ex-cop who works for an investigative firm, receives a phone call from his fellow investigator, Bill Owens, who is getting arrested for the twenty-seven-year-old murder committed by an SLA team. An ambitious prosecutor is reopening the case, ostensibly because one of the original witnesses who provided an alibi for Owens at the time of the shooting is ready to change her testimony. However, the real reason seems to be the much increased activity of homeland security forces that need to raise their profile and be more visible to the nervous public after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Dante is hired by influential friends of Owens to work on the defense and the author follows the case until the trial and verdict.

The best aspect of the novel is the juxtaposition between the SLA’s fight against the supposedly “fascist regime” of 1975 and the situation in 2002 with its oppressive atmosphere of curtailing civic freedoms owing to the ongoing "war on terror" after the 9/11 events. Another strength of the book is its cynicism in showing the real motives driving the legal system, which is not at all about justice but rather "about the prosecutor and his promotions, the newspaperman and his story, the next election and the allocation of the budget."

The rich tapestry of threads in The Ancient Rain includes a well-developed romantic plot that involves Dante, his wife Marilyn, and an admirer of hers; the extraordinary hospital-bed sex scene between Dante and Marilyn is powerful yet tactfully written. On the other hand, the depiction of human psychology is to me the weakest aspect of the novel. With the exception of Marilyn, the characters feel rather paper-thin, clichéd, and schematic, just about on Grisham's level, which is the main reason for my rounding the fractional rating down, from "very good" (setup of the plot, political and social themes) to just "good".

Three and a half stars.

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