Terrapin: A Mystery
By T.M. Doran
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman
A careful reading of this compelling mystery novel uncovers bounteous symbolism and multiple cryptic allusions surrounding a long-hidden crime and several adolescent indiscretions. That said, readers should steel themselves early on against urges to overanalyze events in this exceedingly complex tale. The temptation to “find” themes quickly or to identify culprits is tricky as T.M. Doran’s intricate thriller, Terrapin, braids common strands from four men’s pasts to underscore the point that no one emerges wholly unscathed from the vicissitudes of youthful villainy. The long-dormant villainy in this case explodes unexpectedly into the four perpetrators’ lives during their sports-weekend reunion in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Aficionados of suspense fiction will appreciate the book’s surreal plot, its brisk pace, and its snappy repartee.
The men are all good earners nearing age 50. Greg Pace is an archaeologist at the Smithsonian and is affiliated with the U.S. Army War College. Ben Carlson is a virologist at the National Institutes of Health working on “next generation microbials, eradicating superbugs.” Tony Hulse works in construction, and Dennis Cole balances two careers as a professor of engineering and a writer of detective novels. Dennis recalls his father’s observation about his literary occupation: “Mystery stories were applied philosophy,” and “the best were exercises in reason and ethics.” The taut, dialogue-driven narrative becomes even tighter after Greg is found dead in his hotel room. The three other men step out to discuss the necessary phone calls, but when they return to Greg’s room, his body and all of his personal effects are gone. They consider the possibility of a practical joke and decide against immediately notifying the authorities. The weekend winds down as they weigh alternative actions.
Readers will do well to mark every detail throughout this dense tale as it alternates between the men’s cheerless childhood homes, located outside Detroit in Terrapin Township, and the trials of their adulthoods. A bit of John Heywood’s old proverb, “neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red herring,” applies literally to a terrapin — a cold-blooded, hard-shelled reptile — and figuratively to the distressed hamlet. Several individuals in the working-class burg back in 1969 were burdened both with identity issues and lives lived too close to the bone. Doran’s lively narrative lurches into runaway mode from time to time while relating the numerous tribulations afflicting Terrapin’s troubled families. The bleak, nondescript community lacked much in the way of bucolic charm, and it was the scene of some mean adolescent pranks that crossed moral and legal lines.
The motherless Dennis grew up in “Spartan living conditions” with only his father, a Marine veteran who was left widowed when his wife and other son were killed in an unsolved hit-and-run automobile accident. A sometime philosopher, the elder Cole deploys lots of the no-nonsense, move along, straighten-up-and-fly-right brand of pedagogy. He also keeps a tank of seahorses in the basement, and Dennis helps out with the creatures. Seahorses do not nurture their young; the survival rate of their offspring is low.
Cramped, constricted, and constrained life inside the four men’s childhood homes is masterfully rendered. The outdoors was a different matter. Largely unsupervised kids spent summers roaming through the neighborhood and farther afield on bicycles. Most mothers were home during the day, but helicopter parenting was unimaginable 40 years ago. Few kids were sitting indoors watching television all day, and cell phones, computers, and other electronics were years away. Peaceful coexistence was the general rule in the neighborhood, but when it ebbed, relationships deteriorated quickly. The four boys engaged in some forbidden, dangerous sorties on their bicycles, and an especially vicious intrusion on a neighbor ended badly.
Dennis always wanted to find his mother and brother’s killer, but his father comforted him by stating that “freedom, interior freedom, the only freedom that matters, is an inner peace that comes from consenting to what is.” Mr. Cole believed that the killer was not really free, stating that a “person has to choose…restoration for himself.” At times, the man belabors lessons and advice, appearing almost too good to be true in his capacities as companion, confidant, and confessor. However, Doran draws him as a moral realist in a 1960s world of situational ethics, a realist who also warns against the pretenses and affectations that many folks embrace as love and hope: “Hope relies on facts, evidence, experience.” The discussion turns to proper decision-making: “Making choices calls for discernment and discipline. Sometimes, the right choices are counterintuitive and inconvenient.”
The book’s back-and-forth time travel from the men’s young years to their adulthoods gains an eerie momentum, adding a measure of complexity to their present calamity. At the hotel with no Greg, dead or alive, Dennis, Ben, and Tony make some phone calls and discover that Greg was no longer with the Smithsonian and that he had been divorced for a few years. Readers are warmed up for the many facets of a horrifying conclusion as ongoing revelations, sickening sideshows, and serious score-settling spew across the final pages.
Doran’s prose proclaims that mortals drag their childhoods with them through life’s long fight, and that each generation inhabits its own culture within the same country. Be that as it may, the novel’s unimaginable ending demonstrates that fraudulent intellectual and moral gymnastics in any culture are no match for the ongoing, unmitigated ramifications of malice on perpetrators and victims alike, ramifications that play forward in ways seen and unseen, whether or not they are ever acknowledged.
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