Book briefs

A novel that should've stayed a short story; a murder that keeps generating print.


by Robert Olen Butler (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24)

SIZE—or maybe we should say length—does matter in the literary world. Because readers too often overlook compact works in search of something heftier, many short-story writers have become the unappreciated stepchildren of novelists, suffering from the fear that their tight, epiphany-containing tales aren't quite as masterful as segue-laden, emotion- tugging epics.

This ego-nibbling insecurity might explain why Robert Olen Butler expanded his story about a female auctioneer that first appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's lit rag, Zoetrope: All Story, into the novel Fair Warning. Butler had amply proved himself as an accomplished story writer, what with his picking up a Pulitzer in 1993 for his collection A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain and a 2001 National Magazine Award for his contribution to Zoetrope. Now he could show those novelists (note that he himself has published 10 novels, but none has earned him the same prestige as his short stories) that he could easily flesh out a tale into a meaty work of art, and just maybe snatch another prize in the process.

Alas, this skilled story writer forgot his Greek myths, and Fair Warning shows Butler making like Icarus in his attempt to fly higher, though he'd already reached lofty heights.

The prose is smooth and the plot simple in this book that's basically a character study: Beautiful, sophisticated, and amusingly sarcastic Amy Dickerson's the star employee of Nichols and Gray, a Manhattan auction house that brings Renoirs and Renaissance lutes to the jets 'n' pearls crowd. The 40-year-old hasn't sweat from nerves since she was 16—until she encounters seductively dark-eyed Trevor Martin, who bids for a dinner with her at a benefit auction. After she nearly avoids becoming Trevor's object, Amy finds her guarded independence equally threatened by Alain Bouchard, a French tycoon who's seizing Nichols and Gray, as well as her heart.

Fair Warning's deepest flaw is that, even though it spans 200 pages, it's still structured like a short story, complete with epiphany pinned on at the end. Though she's quite vivid, the coldly ambitious and emotionally calloused Amy—whose auctioneering skills date back to the time she sold her 3-year-old sister to a girl up the street—remains largely unlikable throughout the book. By the time we reach Amy's realization, we care less about what she learns and more about how this novel read in its abbreviated form.

David Massengill


by James Neff (Random House, $25.95)

SAM Sheppard is the Cleveland doctor held responsible for the July 4, 1954 beating death of his pregnant wife, Marilyn, and for abetting the elimination of several forests of newspaper to since recount his story. Though acquitted of murder at a second trial in 1966, Sheppard, who died in 1970, remained guilty in the minds of many, despite the favorable portrayals inspired by his case in the popular TV series and movie The Fugitive. In the most definitive account to date, investigative journalist and author Jim Neff not only insists Dr. Sam is innocent; he can prove it.

Key is his prison interview with Richard Eberling, Marilyn's handyman who part-timed as a burglar and whose blood droplets surfaced at the murder scene. Eberling, who summoned Neff to visit him while doing life for another killing, indirectly, but convincingly in Neff's mind, confessed to the slaying. A few days later, he died.

Born in Cleveland and now an editor at The Seattle Times, Neff submits new DNA evidence that supports his conclusions. He additionally picks apart a case he says was engineered by police and prosecutors using creative "facts," wrongheaded assumptions, and a tainted jury. Importantly, Neff also exposes the collaboration between the local press and the county coroner to convict Sheppard. It's an accusation that, other than a book review, has received little mainstream ink in Cleveland today. As Seattle Weekly's sister paper, the Cleveland Free Times, reported recently:

"The [Cleveland] Plain Dealer has apparently found it convenient to disregard Neff's conclusions about the case and the media. The PD rightly chose someone unconnected with Cleveland to write a review, which was positive. Since then, the paper has ignored Neff's conclusions despite their historic nature and the issues raised."

Rick Anderson

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