In Heart of a Killer by David Rosenfelt, coming February 14th, we have the month’s ultimate Valentine.
The heart in question belongs to Sheryl Harrison, who is locked up in New Jersey State Prison for Women for slitting her husband’s throat. It is to her fourteen year old daughter, who is dying of a congenital heart defect, that Sheryl Harrison wants to give her own heart—a perfect match for the girl’s rare blood type. To make this happen, Sheryl wants to die.
We’re not forced to face the darkness without a cushion of wry, self-deprecating humor in the person of Jamie Wagner, a young, underachieving graduate of Harvard Law School. Jamie is assigned Sheryl’s pro bono case, and he heads to the Women’s prison with his usual dull indifference. He’s shallow, is Jamie, but he’s a gentleman, albeit a bumbling one. We don’t get the undressing-with-the-eyes cliché. Instead:
. . . All in all, she looked like someone that ten years ago I could have taken to the prom, except for the fact that prospective prom dates are rarely handcuffed to metal tables . . . .
He wants to dump the case. In New Jersey there’s no way to convince a judge she should be executed, nor will the state allow mercy suicides. He has neither the guts nor the experience to handle the legal argument, and he’s going to fail. He considers his options over a goodly number of beers.
“If I lose, which I would, I’m a loser. If I win, which I won’t, my client dies. Not exactly a fun way to pass the time.”
It doesn’t take long for Jamie to fall for Sheryl. Inadvertently, he’s caught up in the limelight of public opinion over her right to die.
By the time I drove to the court house, which was in Newark, you would think that the president of the United States or Lindsay Lohan was arriving. I had been so busy that I don’t think I fully understood the media firestorm Sheryl’s plight had created.
Demonstrations were well under way on both sides of the issue, but I would say the definite tilt was toward our side.
. . .
“Have you seen the national polls on this?” Donovan asked. “Thirty-five percent of the people are opposed to her; they don’t want to let her kill herself. Fifty-two percent are on her side.”
Jamie’s only hope lies in overturning Sheryl’s conviction, well nigh impossible since she confessed to the murder. Sheryl, meanwhile, is convinced she must die.
I was running computer searches for painless ways to commit suicide, ways that would not damage vital organs. I thought the answers would be plentiful, but all I did was turn up countless pleas to distraught people telling them not to die, that life was too worth living.
That’s what I wanted to tell Sheryl, among a thousand other things, but there was little time left to do it.
. . .
“I know it’s a lot to ask, but my mother won’t be around forever, and Karen doesn’t have anyone else. I would just appreciate it if you would look out for her. You know, take an interest. Call her once in a while, take her to dinner, give her away at her wedding. That kind of thing.”
I had a lump in my throat. I had never before realized a throat could actually get lumps; I always considered it a mythical conceit of fictional tearjerkers.
Jamie refuses to let Sheryl down, so he challenges the lead detective who handled her criminal case to help him win her release. But one by one, each lead the two of them follow ends in deadlock.
Rosenfelt deftly handles numerous plot lines as the clock ticks toward a daughter’s death and the threat of a terrorist act so monstrous that it brings the nation to its knees. In doing so, he examines four hearts, and does so without melodrama or mush.