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Clear Proof

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Dutch Colson is a private eye who has moved with his wife Lauraine to the Upper West Side of Manhattan: he to establish his practice, she to become the executive chef of a new restaurant. In ABI member David Paul Miller's new novel, Clear Proof, Dutch narrates for us the tale of his three-year involvement with Robbie Lawrence and his family. Robbie is profligate, spoiled and rich. His family consists of his mother; his father, a successful Midwestern urologist; his mother's second husband Raoul Sank, a French general and author; Gen. Sank's son Henri, who has been adopted by Robbie's mother thereby becoming Robbie's half step-brother; and Marie, the Broadway actress with whom both Robbie and Henri share a physical and perhaps romantic relationship. This is not your average dysfunctional American family unit.

Dutch's story begins with the news that Gen. Sank has been murdered, thrown off a subway platform into an oncoming train. Dutch had previously come into contact with Gen. Sank when he was retained by Robbie's father to sort out a spat between Robbie and his stepbrother that threatened to get Robbie expelled from college. Robbie is indicted for the murder and turns to Dutch to help him and his lawyer sort out the facts. Dutch undertakes the assignment and in the process becomes a sort of surrogate parent and guardian angel for Robbie.

Bad luck seemingly follows Robbie and his family. Following his acquittal in connection with Gen. Sank's murder, Robbie's father is killed in a mysterious boating accident, and later Robbie's mother dies when she falls from her hotel room window. In each case, Dutch is called upon to uncover the evidence that exonerates Robbie—or does it? Is Robbie an unwitting victim of circumstance, or does he bear a more nefarious connection to these events?

As a narrator, Dutch is spare in his use of adjectives. His narrative style is to simply relate the various facts and events as they unfold and become known to him. He lets readers decide for themselves what the motivations of the various players are. Mr. Miller, through Dutch, is at his best when relating the details of the various trials that follow each untimely death. Dutch repeats all of the key testimony, evidentiary rulings, motion practice, jury instructions and eventual verdicts. Reading Dutch's description of each trial, I felt as if I was watching a time-compressed replay of a trial on "Court TV."

Befitting a novel written by an ABI member, Robbie's troubles are not limited to being the prime suspect in several homicides. He also manages to bankrupt himself and ends up being indicted for bankruptcy fraud for failing to disclose a preferential transfer to a loan shark. At one point in the novel, Dutch observes: "He (Robbie) was a weasel, a selfish brat, a threat—not a solution—to his creditors. Life was a game, a bowl full of cherries about to turn rotten." Ultimately, Robbie becomes a threat to Dutch as well.

Mr. Miller's novel is an engaging read. In the tradition of other private investigator noir novels, Dutch's narration is spare and concise. One might hope for a little more character development and analysis on the motivations of the players in Robbie's world. Perhaps Dutch views analysis of that sort as being the reader's responsibility. His responsibility is to provide the clear proof. We are provided the opportunity to act as the jury and thereby charged with the responsibility for providing our own answers concerning the motivations of the victims and the accused.

Journal Date: 
Sunday, February 1, 2004

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