Book Review: A Fearsome Moonlight Black by David Putnam

Dave Beckett is barely twenty-one years old in the winter of 1979, but fears that he’s already becoming a death magnet. Even as a beat cop like he is in the city of West Valley, California, it’s fairly unusual for anyone to come across a murder in a place that averages only 18 to 25 homicides annually. Dave, on the other hand, has already managed to be the first responder to two murders in a row, on top of a gory suicide and a fatal traffic accident, during his probationary period alone.

While some of his colleagues—particularly his superiors—are genuinely concerned about how all this is affecting him, Dave is paranoid about washing out, a fear not helped by the macho hazing of some of his fellow cops. For him, joining the police force has long been a dream, a boy’s adventure in grown-up clothing. He’s only slowly coming to understand the reality of his job and its impact on his well-being:

For the next three days I didn’t sleep. Not well, at least. I tossed and turned and tangled in sweaty sheets. Nightmare images wouldn’t leave me alone. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Malloy and Reed on Adam-12 never saw the horror show in Mr. Shearer’s garage. I was on the job for the high adventure, not “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Poe. I couldn’t talk about it with anyone on the job; they’d think me weak and unable to handle it. I still had six months left on probation.

So Dave buckles down, suppressing his feelings in an effort to get the job done no matter what gets thrown at him, literally or figuratively. At the same time, he’s wooing Beth, a young woman he went to high school with. Back then, she’d been deeply in love with her boyfriend Cole. Everyone had expected them to graduate and get married, but Cole had unexpectedly disappeared, leaving Beth both heartbroken and bewildered. Two years on though, she might finally be ready to move on with Dave.

Dave is determined to make something of himself as well as to provide Beth with the kind of life they both deserve. But a routine investigation into the disappearance of teenager Jessica DeFrank will not only put Dave face to face with a gruesome death once more but also place him in mortal danger. Shaken to the core by the experience—on top of the four other cases that are already preying on his psyche—Dave puts in for a transfer to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department, where his experience with corpses fast-tracks him into the homicide department.

Fast-forward eight years and Dave is a homicide detective. His personal life hasn’t gone the way he’d expected, and while his professional life is exemplary when it comes to closing cases, his ability to step on the toes of other departments due to his often creative interpretation of the rules has made him no friends. After one rogue incident too many, he’s busted down from his desk in homicide to cold cases, or the Bone Department as it’s derisively called.

While other detectives might view this as a demotion—and Dave does too, to be perfectly honest—he reluctantly accepts that this is also a sign for him to reopen the case that has been haunting him ever since his last days at West Valley:

I finally made it to homicide and continually told myself that I needed more experience, putting off, again and again, reopening her case. Now I had my chance, as if karma had stepped in to kick me in the head. If I had to go back to West Valley PD to reopen the investigation into Elise Stoner, I might as well stick my nose into the Jessica DeFrank affair. What else could my boss do to me? The West Valley PD wasn’t going to appreciate a sheriff’s dick sticking his fat nose in their business, especially into a closed case. Especially a bottom-feeding Bone Detective.

The contrast between Dave’s idealistic if over-eager young beat cop to the cynical detective he grows up to be is stark, though makes for very absorbing reading. He isn’t the only one changed by the passage of years, as we discover over the course of this novel. As he heads back into West Valley to finally get to the bottom of what happened to Jessica, he uncovers shocking secrets, and discovers that maybe he hasn’t come as far as he thought from the romantic rookie that he used to be.

I was both pleased and unsurprised to discover that the first part of A Fearsome Moonlight Black is based on David Putnam’s own experiences as a young police officer. The writing is visceral and the emotions almost painfully honest as the fictionalized version of the author navigates these turbulent but formative episodes. Mr. Putnam skilfully draws from them to create a compelling, interlinked story of a serial killer hiding in plain sight, with a cinematic, satisfying climax that hopefully heralds more to come in the series.

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