Book Review: The Necklace by Matt Witten
The Necklace by Matt Witten follows the journey of a mother’s cross-country trip to witness the execution of the murderer who slaughtered her 7-year-old daughter 20 years prior—but a startling discovery could mean the wrong man is about to be put to death.
It’s been 20 years since the death of her 7-year-old daughter Amy, but Susan Lentigo is finally about to get her closure. After the federal trial and conviction of the man she will only call by the term The Monster, Susan demanded the death penalty. The sentencing judge was only too happy to grant her request given the brutality of the crime. Now her daughter’s killer will finally be executed in the prison where he’s been incarcerated while waiting out the appeals process in far-off North Dakota.
The trouble is Susan doesn’t have a lot of money for the trip there from her small New York town. A year or so after Amy died, she and her real estate agent husband, Danny, split up, and she’s been waitressing to make ends meet ever since. The town holds a fundraiser for her expenses, but one costly disaster after another dogs her as she makes her way west to bear witness to the death of the man she believes raped and murdered her daughter.
As she progresses, however, a niggling feeling that she can’t escape keeps troubling her:
She still had a feeling in her bones that she couldn’t put her finger on, that didn’t make sense, that there was something about her daughter’s murder she had missed, and if she had noticed it at the time, she could have prevented it.
But what did she miss? What could she have done?
The psychiatrist down at Albany Hospital had told her it was a common phenomenon: people feeling guilty after a senseless tragedy, trying to come up with some scenario whereby it wasn’t just random but something they themselves had somehow caused. For some people, it was better to feel guilty than to feel like they had no control over what happened in their lives.
Susan knows she has a history of emotional instability and that this contributed to the breakdown of her marriage. The stress of her journey wears on her capacity for self-control, but when she thinks she’s unearthed evidence that the wrong man was convicted of her daughter’s slaying, even she balks at what this could mean for the past two decades of her life. She’s lived in limbo for all this time, waiting for the execution of one person to bring her the vindication she needs in order to move on with her life. But what if she’s gotten it all wrong and an innocent man is about to die? And what if, by keeping quiet, she gives a killer the opportunity to abuse and murder another child?
This is a fast-paced and fascinating look into the mind of a protagonist often underrepresented in the psychological thriller. Most of the heroines in this genre are firmly middle-class and in their 20s or 30s; Susan, on the other hand, is older, poorer, and indifferently educated. The social contrast to the typical heroine is both stark and compelling, especially as she interacts with a wide range of people also affected by the sentencing. Standouts include the conflicted FBI Agent Robert Pappas; fellow traveler Lisa, whose kindness belies her fierce protectiveness of her family; and feisty teenager Kyra, who provides a helping hand when Susan most desperately needs it.
But it isn’t just the characters who serve to differentiate this story from other mysteries. The insights into poverty and the theater of the death penalty make for rich, thoughtful reading, as here where Susan is being taken on a tour of the execution room by the distressingly perky Pam from the prison’s public relations department:
Susan imagined herself sitting in one of those gray folding chairs, watching [her daughter’s killer] die. She had been so eager to be the last person [he] saw while he was taking his final breath. She wondered, would the judge have given [him] the death penalty if she hadn’t demanded it?
“Any other questions?” Pam asked.
“I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”
Pam took a barf bag out of a drawer of the medical cart. “We got you covered,” she said, her voice sounding extra cheerful, if anything.
This novel is a smart, propulsive page-turner that chronicles how Susan faces internal turmoil and external obstacles on her cross-country odyssey to find justice for her child. Matt Witten’s background as an Emmy- and Edgar-nominated television script-writer serves him very well here, as the tension builds to a devastating climax. The Necklace has also been optioned for film with Leonardo DiCaprio attached as producer, but you should definitely get in on the ground floor by reading this terrific book before seeing the movie!