Review: A Crime in the Neighborhood

The Women’s Prize for Fiction just announced yesterday that it’ll be promoting all past winners throughout 2020, culminating in a public vote for a “winner of the winners” in honor of the prize’s 25th year! (And if you’re curious about the history of the prize, definitely check out Rachel’s massively impressive FULL LIST of every title ever nominated!) I’m not confident about being able to read all of the past winners before the vote- there’s already so much I want to read this year. But earlier this month I did cross another past winner off of my list: Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood…. one of my least favorite winners so far!

This is part of a group buddy read, so I’ll link the other reviews as they appear- here are Sarah’s thoughts!

acrimeintheneighborhoodIn the novel, adult Marsha looks back on the summer of 1972 (though some jacket copy erroneously touts that we’re looking at 1973). She was nine years old, living in a suburb of Washington D.C. Her parents were just splitting up, and a boy who lived nearby had been molested and killed in an empty lot behind the local shopping mall. Neighborhood residents could hardly believe it had happened on their safe little streets, and the possibility that the perpetrator might be one of the familiar faces living amongst them seemed absurd. But Marsha needed a project, so she took detailed notes of everything happening in the neighborhood that summer- until she believed she had found the murderer.

” ‘But I know he did it,’ I said, kicking the coffee table with my good foot.’ / ‘You don’t know,’ my mother said, folding her arms as she turned away and headed toward the staircase. ‘You only think you do.’ / ‘I do know.’ / ‘You only want to know. That’s all it is, Marsha,’ she said bitterly, turning back to me for a moment, her mouth a sharp line.”

A Crime in the Neighborhood wants so badly to be a mystery, though ultimately it fails to provide one. The reader may ask two questions based on the book’s premise- “Who killed Boyd?” is the first, and perhaps the one that mystery/thriller readers will be more interested in; unfortunately, it’s shunted aside early on as the focus shifts to Mr. Green, Marsha’s new neighbor, as her only suspect. In the end this is not actually the story of a mysterious murder, but an examination of Marsha’s nine year-old life and relationships, which limits how much of the murder case the reader is able to see. Despite the fact that Marsha is looking back on this event from many years later, we don’t see more of the murder investigation as a result of that distance- we only see Marsha realizing the extent of her own mistake. With the book framed this way, the second question of interest to the reader- “Did Mr. Green kill Boyd?” is answered early on, thanks to foreshadowing and a pervasive tone of regret in the narrative.

In place of a mystery, we’re left with a historical look at suburban America. Marsha’s is a “family neighborhood,” her parents’ divorce is a quiet scandal, gossip is rampant, and the children run free from block to block in the pre-cellphone era. Watergate is a hot topic.  Marsha is a nosy kid often left out by her older siblings; a broken foot this summer also holds her back, leaving her home alone with her notebook in order to record everyone’s comings and goings. Surely this aspect of the book is likely to attract some readers, though personally I wasn’t very interested. Somehow (despite not having been alive to witness it firsthand) I seem to have acquainted myself well enough with the white suburban 70s well enough already that I just didn’t take much from this experience.

Furthermore, I couldn’t seem to invest in any of these characters. Marsha’s dad is a weak and absent man, her mother held just far enough out of sight that she seems aloof and unreachable. The older siblings are, frankly, irrelevant. Marsha doesn’t have any meaningful friendships with other neighborhood kids, and no one liked Boyd while he was alive. Mr. Green is so shy and awkward that he almost seems to be sabotaging his own social life. Marsha herself is not particularly likable; she sees everything (or so she thinks) but does very little of import, and what she does accomplish doesn’t encourage much sympathy from the reader.

“Once I have lied, I’ve propelled myself into a story that has its own momentum. It’s not that I convince myself that I’m telling the truth, it’s that the truth becomes flexible. Or rather, the truth appears to me as utterly relative, which is a frightening thought but also inevitable if you examine any truth long enough, even reassuring in a cold way.”

I wonder if this story might have been more interesting from Marsha’s mother’s perspective. For me the most interesting part of this book was the implication that in her father’s sudden absence, Marsha dislikes Mr. Green primarily because her mother takes an interest in him. She misses her dad, and she doesn’t want to lose her parents’ attention. Whereas it takes Marsha years to understand the causes and consequences of her actions over this summer, her mother would likely have had a more immediate grasp of and emotional response to all of these events. For her, it may have come down to a difficult choice of deciding whether to side with her daughter or speak up for an innocent stranger, which could have supplied the novel with a lot more tension than Marsha’s belated contrition. I would’ve loved to see more of the mother’s personality and opinions here.

” ‘Ask for what you want,’ my mother has always prodded me. ‘Make your case. If you don’t get what you want, then at least it won’t be because nobody knew what you wanted.’ “

But despite my general dissatisfaction, I must say I did find this book very readable. Even though I wasn’t excited about the plot, I had no trouble picking the book up and committing to each of the chapters. The writing is rather plain and preoccupied with quotable morals, but I found it to be an easy read, which certainly cannot be said for all of the Women’s Prize winners. If accessibility is important to you, and you’re more interested in 70’s suburbia and the particular blindness of childhood, you might find A Crime in the Neighborhood a better fit!

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This rating feels harsh, but I can’t help reading a prize-winning book with a more critical eye and higher expectations than I might otherwise. I didn’t hate this book and wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading it, but I did unfortunately find it disappointing on pretty much every level. Better luck with the next winner, I hope!

 

The Literary Elephant

27 thoughts on “Review: A Crime in the Neighborhood”

  1. This was a very well-balanced review, Emily. I haven’t read this book, but based on what you’ve said about it, I don’t think “belated contrition” makes for a very interesting plot, either, especially over an act committed at a young age and which can be understood as a function of youth. I’m skipping this one. I hope the next one you’ll pick up will be much better. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! 🙂 It’s always sad to turn someone off of a book, but I would definitely recommend other Women’s Prize books ahead of this one. The intent was good, but there were so many things I wished it had done better!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I do hope you’ll have a better time with it! I think the right reader could definitely find more merit here, so with any luck it’ll fare better with the rest of the group. I’ll look forward to your thoughts! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I was really hoping to like it more, especially since it won a prestigious prize. Sadly it just wasn’t for me!
      Thanks for reading. 🙂

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  2. Great review! I can agree with your feeling of being well acquainted with 1970s white suburbia despite not being alive then or living there. I can’t help but feel I would not encourage my 9-year-old daughter to investigate a murder (let alone a murder of a child) so I like your point about this story perhaps being better told from the mother’s perspective.

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    1. Thank you! I wondered if the fact that this was released 20 years ago (and the women’s prize is based in the UK) might’ve meant the judges and other readers were less familiar with 70s US suburbia for some reason? I honestly can’t really see how else this one managed a win!

      The girl’s investigation is pretty low-key. She saves newspaper clippings and sits in her front yard jotting down notes about what her neighbors are doing, and that’s about it. I can agree that I wouldn’t want my (hypothetical) child getting involved, but the fact that she’s hardly in a position to actually learn anything also makes her seem like a poor choice as narrator.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That does make sense since I think the reason we feel that way is because movies and TV are so saturated with it. Interesting to think maybe it wouldn’t win now.

        This sounds like Harriet the Spy trying to narrate a serious literary novel!

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      2. I agree! 70s suburbia has made many appearances in pop culture over the last decade or two, it seems like.

        And that’s a very apt comparison!

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  3. It sounds like this book is a cross between The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-time and Rear Window. The tension from both stories come from the present-tense, in-the-moment feeling, and not knowing the ending or how safe the lead character is. If this is the story of a neighborhood rocked by a false accusation, it likely would have done better with multiple perspectives, mainly from those in the neighborhood.

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    1. I would’ve loved this to be a multi-perspective crime story about the effect this child murder had on the neighborhood! Sadly it’s very much a personal story about a woman eventually realizing she made a mistake as a child when she tried to get involved in this investigation. It’s all told from some distant point in the future and the story revolves more around the girl’s life at the time than on the actual crime, which is really why I was so disappointed. It seems like the point that the author is trying to make (that children rush into things they don’t understand in hopes of getting more attention or being part of something big) is a rather obvious one that could’ve been conveyed in a lot fewer words.

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  4. Great review – I also disliked this one but remembered very little about it. I think your point in the comments that this narrative may have been relatively less familiar to a UK audience is a good one – I spent part of my childhood in the States and grew up with Harriet the Spy et al, so this felt so cliched to me, but it may not have done to other Brits in 1997. Although I would hope nowadays that everybody just reads Donna Tartt’s infinitely superior The Little Friend instead!

    I’m aiming to read all of the past prize winners because I only have five left to go (I read a lot of them back when the prize was celebrating its latest ten years in 2015) but we’ll see if I actually manage it! Which one are you planning to read next? I’m going to try Fugitive Pieces.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I still need to read The Little Friend! But I’m glad my thought about a British audience being less familiar with 70s US suburbia didn’t seem way off base. It’s been a popular setting for so long (I remember That 70s Show being an ubiquitous background to my childhood!) that it’s odd to imagine a time/place when it would’ve seemed fresh, but it would help explain the win, to my mind at least.

      Wow, you’ve read so many! I just started getting into lit prizes a couple of years ago, so I’ve only managed 7 winners so far. But I am definitely interested now so I’ll look forward to your thoughts on Fugitive Pieces! I’m aiming to squeeze in The Song of Achilles yet before the 2020 longlist announcement. Hopefully after this year’s prize I’ll have more time to focus on past winners before the public vote!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been following the Women’s Prize since 2009 and I also read a few past winners when they did ‘The Best of the Best’ in 2015, so I have a head start! I’m still a bit worried about fitting them all in plus a likely Ducks, Newburyport long-lasting though 🙂

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      2. I wish you the best of luck in finishing the list! I doubt I’ll be able to finish all of the previous winners before the public vote, but I’ll definitely keep at it even if I miss that deadline.

        I read Ducks because of its Booker shortlisting and loved it, so I’m really hoping to see to see it longlisted here as well! But I know the Women’s Prize list tends to be long already and length can be an issue… I’m equally worried about Mantel’s new book being listed, since I haven’t read the rest of the Wolf Hall trilogy yet!

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      3. I have the opposite problem; I’ve read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies so I’ll be reading The Mirror and the Light anyway, whereas I’m concerned I won’t be able to get through Ducks if it’s longlisted, as it looks like the sort of book I will want to read in short bursts. I should probably just start reading it now!

        Perhaps the obvious problem re. Mirror and the Light will put them off longlisting it, though? I always think it is a bit tricky to judge the second or third book in a trilogy against stand-alones anyway. I won’t be devastated if it’s not longlisted as, while I think the existing ecology is very, very good, I haven’t been as blown away by it as other readers.

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      4. I hope you’ll enjoy Ducks, whenever you get to it! It was a surprisingly fast read for me, but I think it would be easy to divide into smaller chunks over more time as well.

        I do agree that it seems a bit unfair to judge a third book as a singular text against others actually written as singular texts, not to mention that it’s a bigger commitment for readers as well. But with both of the previous volumes shortlisted and the possibility that The Mirror and the Light will make the Booker list as well it would seem conspicuous to omit it, I think. Not yet having read any of them though I would not be devastated either if it did miss the WP list this year! I will definitely be reading the trilogy at some point no matter what happens here, but in the interest of wanting to read the full longlist it seemed best to start psyching myself up for it in advance.

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    1. I’m always a bit sad turning someone off of a book, but I definitely think there are more exciting titles to fill your time with, including other great women’s prize winners!

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  5. I didn’t get around to this one in February after all, and now I’m even less motivated to pick it up after your and Sarah’s assessments! But as you know I am a completionist so I will be doing it anyway, probably after I read the longlist. Ugh, I hope it does something magical for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you’ll have a better time with it! I did find it a very quick and easy read at least. And we all had such varied opinions on The Tiger’s Wife… anything could happen!

      Liked by 1 person

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