Review: A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum

A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum is part coming-of-age story, part cold-case murder mystery set in a small town in Ohio. It is nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.

When Travis Baron was just five months old, his mother disappeared. She was last seen jumping from a pleasure boat into the Ohio River just before a barge rammed into the boat, destroying whatever traces of her that investigators may have found later. Amanda Baron’s death leaves a gaping hole in Travis’s life. He’s raised by an angry, bitter single father who erases every trace of Amanda from their lives. 

Fast-forward to high school. Travis is an A+ student, a cross-country running star, and an incredibly lonely young man. Determined to find out about his past, he recruits his best friend, Mitch Malone, into “Project Amanda”—their codename for Travis’s attempt to find out anything about his mother. But what starts out as an attempt to know his mother quickly turns into an amateur cold-case investigation when they discover a news article declaring that Amanda’s disappearance was looked into as a homicide. As the boys dig deeper, they find a lot of secrets tangled up in the lives of the men and women in Brilliant, Ohio.

Robin Yocum’s A Brilliant Death is a beautifully written Edgar nominee. The story of Travis’s search for his mother, told from his best friend’s point of view, is a deftly created collage of mystery, small-town life, and growing up. In many ways, the “feel” of it is reminiscent of Stephen King’s novella The Body (later made into the classic movie Stand by Me) or Robert McCammon’s A Boy’s Life—all three are about young boys looking into the darkness of the world for the first time.

The story, as much as it is about Amanda Baron’s disappearance, centers on two teenagers: Travis Baron and Mitch Malone. Yocum has made the smart choice to tell this story through Mitch’s eyes. Mitch serves as an “everyman”—someone the reader can generally relate to. Mitch’s background is middle-class American. He’s got a mom who nags him to clean his room, a dad who supports his sports, and he’s not the greatest student but not the worst. 

Mitch is the perfect friend for someone like Travis. Travis’s dad doesn’t want him, doesn’t support him or his endeavors, outright hits him, and doesn’t feed him. So, rather than wallow in the tragedy that is Travis’s life, Yocum chooses to put Mitch in the thick of things. Because Mitch is sympathetic to his friend—and often takes some hits for him—the friendship takes on a life of its own. 

Like when Mitch gets stuck in the attic of Travis’s home because Big Frank (Travis’s notoriously armed and abusive father) comes home early: 

My legs began to cramp above the knees. The calves followed suit. I couldn’t move to rub them for fear of making the rafters creak and causing Big Frank to send three or four salvos into the ceiling. Eventually, the cramps subsided, but I could no longer control my bladder. It is miserable and humiliating to piss your pants when you are nearly fifteen years old, but it was such a relief that I was willing to ignore the shame. My jeans, shorts, socks and tennis shoes were now soaked, and the stench of urine was added to that of must and dust.

I prayed to God to get me out of Big Frank’s house alive. And I made a solemn vow that if he allowed me to escape, to live and again breathe fresh air, I would repay his gracious and divine intervention by strangling my best friend Travis.

As the boy’s explore Amanda Baron’s past, Yocum—an award-winning crime journalist—utilizes his reporting skills by creating newspaper articles to reveal necessary information. This adds a sense of verisimilitude to the narration because the reader is getting the information in the same format as the boys. This format works much better than long bits of dialogue or flashbacks to reveal details because it gives the who, what, where, when, why, and how right off the bat. 

The following is the moment when the boys discover Amanda’s disappearance wasn’t something people ignored, despite the fact no one will talk directly to them about it now:

After placing one end of the spool on a spindle and threading the film under the lens and onto an empty spool, Travis turned a knob and the October 1953 editions of the Herald-Star began running across the screen. The stories were not hard to find. This had been big news in the Upper Ohio River Valley, and the stories stretched across the top of the front page under bold, banner headlines.

“Jesus Christ, look at this story. This must have been some big deal,” Travis said.

October 2, 1953


A 22-year-old Brilliant woman and her yet unidentified companion were believed to have drowned early today when a barge laden with iron ore rammed their drifting pleasure craft on the Ohio River, about two miles north of the LaGrange Locks.

At press time today, authorities were continuing to search the river for the bodies of Amanda Baron and the man, both whom are missing and presumed dead.

Between news articles, rumors, an adventure in a graveyard, and basically just being too precocious to stop when they’re ahead, Mitch and Travis find themselves in the middle of a murder investigation. Together, they hunt down the original investigator and Amanda’s potential lovers, and the boys discover a little more about Ohio’s organized crime syndicate than they probably anticipated—all before graduating high school. Rather than step back and let the authorities work it out—because, after all, the cops have had fifteen years to figure this out—the teens jump in with both feet.

But sometimes the past isn’t as far away as we assume. 

A Brilliant Death is, in a word, brilliant. Robin Yocum has created characters that a reader can get invested in. Even Amanda, who never appears directly on the page, comes to life as her son seeks justice for her. Travis, Mitch, and Brilliant, Ohio, will stick with the reader long after the last page is turned.   


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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.


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