This is the latest installment in our scheme to review each and every Hard Case Crime mystery in order, one every week. You can follow along here.
So here's a thing - Domenic Stansberry's The Confession (2004) is one of the first Hard Case Crime novels I ever read, and I hated it. Seriously. Thought it was terrible. Annoying. Pretentious. Etc. When I started this re-read project, I saw my copy, knew it'd be looming in February and just, you know, resigned myself to having to slag off an Edgar winner.
Who knew that, one feverish re-read later, The Confession would become one of my favourites?
Everything about The Confession hinges on the book's protagonist and (first person) narrator, Jake Danser.
Jake's got it all. He's married to a beautiful, wealthy, supportive woman. He's a moderately-acclaimed forensic psychologist, which affords him plenty of time in the spotlight during murder trials. To top it all off, Jake's a good-looking man with a lot of charisma and an extensive wardrobe.
And, let's be honest, no one appreciates Jake more than Jake. From the first few sentences, it is clear that this is a man that likes himself. A lot.
Jake also likes the ladies. And that's where his trouble begins (or, as the case may be, continues). He's playing around on the side with Sara Johnson, a young lawyer that he met at the courthouse. It is moderately serious - Sara's pushing him for a commitment (as her young boyfriend is pushing her) and Jake's not sure if he's ready to upset the luxurious apple-cart of his life. The affair isn't quite going sour, but it is escalating outside of his control. And Jake's a man that likes to be in control.
Professionally, things are slipping as well. Jake's an expert witness for the defense in a high-profile local murder trial. Angela Mori was strangled by persons unknown, but a lot of the (circumstantial) evidence points towards her boyfriend. Jake's on board to talk about temporary insanity and blackouts. Initially, he's quite pleased. He likes the attention and he loves being part of a team of A-list celebrity experts. Except when the other experts all drop off the case, Jake's left on his own, the centerpiece of a defense that's increasingly looking like the wrong strategy all together. The icing on the cake? The prosecuting attorney, Minor, may be shagging Jake's wife. That's stings.
As The Confession unspools, it becomes apparent that there are layers beneath layers beneath layers. Jake's connection with the deceased Angela Mori becomes important, then a red herring, then important again. His past is dragged up for the reader's examination - first by a blackmailer, then by a loyal detective friend. But then we learn that none of this is actually Jake's past at all, just a shallow examination of the last few years. For Jake, everything is logical and he's perpetually the victim of terrible circumstances. But when Sara is found dead (also strangled), Jake's looking less ill-used and more like a murderer.
And even then, if Jake is a murderer... is he a victim of the 'blackout syndrome' that he admits he's suffered since childhood? Or is he a cold-blooded killer? How much of what he's telling the reader is true? The Confession is Jake's alibi, Jake's plea and, only when it comes to the most seemingly meaningless pieces of trivia, an actual admission. This is the unreliable narrator taken to a shocking extreme, where the reader is left to determine not only if the narrator is telling the truth, but, even if he is lying, whether or not it is a conscious effort... The Confession is a masterfully composed book, a modern thriller in the vein of Clifton Adams' Death's Sweet Song or Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me. (Although, let's be fair, nothing plays at the level of The Killer Inside Me, but The Confession is good enough to at least tailgate in the same ballpark. That's high praise.)
For my part, how can I reconcile my (visceral) hatred of The Confession with my unabashed admiration of it on the re-read? I think, as I mentioned above, it all hinges on Jake Danser. He's a complete jackass. Utterly detestable from head to toe. He's surrounded by people that, although not perfect, are just better human beings than he is. On top of that, he's exactly 10% more proud of himself than he ought to be - so he manages to combine smug and self-deluded in all the worst ways. Reading a book in his voice is like spending consecutive evenings with loathsome people, loathsome people that think they're doing you a favour.
But, as I discovered the second time around, the book itself doesn't require that I like Jake. (In fact, as it twists and turns, there's a certain schadenfreude that comes from watching him generate increasingly gymnastic illusions.) In my case, The Confession was also made more interesting by knowing how it ends. The first time through, I was reading for the plot - what happens, who gets (or doesn't get) what they deserve. The second time, I was better able to appreciate the intricacies of Jake's perspective. What Jake thinks happens is not the objective truth, and there's a lot going on between the lines (or behind them). It is ok to hate Jake - I actively encourage it as a healthy activity. The Confession, as the name itself hints, isn't about a hero. It is, however, as complex and intriguing a portrait of villainy as I've read in a long, long time.
Good cover by Richard B. Farrell, although, in this case, the imprint's commitment to vintage covers and pulp taglines slightly misrepresents how complex (and action-free) The Confession actually is. (In my mind, I'd give The Confession some sort of bonkers representational cover, like one of these. Or maybe a gritty photographic treatment. Man. Brooding. Cigarette. Tie on the floor. Etc. Etc. Mind you, both those treatments would look terrible as a Hard Case Crime cover, and be a disaster when set alongside the rest of the series. So, er, ignore me.)