William Heffernan’s detective attends to the dead

“The Dead Detective,” by William Heffernan. Akashic Books. 340 pages. $24.95.

William Heffernan’s Harry Doyle is a hard-boiled, no-nonsense police detective with a spiritual side and a powerful sense of mission. Some say that dead speak to him, and Doyle doesn’t deny it. After all, he was dead once himself – murdered at age ten, along with his younger brother, by a lunatic mother who thought her sons needed the benefits of the heavenly hereafter. Technically, if briefly, gone from this world, Harry Doyle was miraculously resuscitated. In part due to his testimony, Doyle’s mother was locked up for life. The boy was adopted by the loving couple who had become his foster parents, taking their last name. 

The present time of the story is two decades later. Doyle is a detective with the Pinellas County (Tampa area) Sheriff’s Department tasked with examining the homicide of Darlene Beckett. The victim, a gorgeous young woman, was herself recently a perpetrator. Because her victim did not wish to testify, she was able to receive a light sentence for sexual assault of a minor, a fourteen year old boy who was a student in Beckett’s middle school health class. Her sentence included three years of wearing an ankle monitor, but no actual jail time. Many outraged people felt she deserved a much harsher punishment. Would they take matters into their own hands?

Doyle and his colleagues find Beckett’s body seductively posed with the word “evil” cut into her forehead. Though she had bled out from her throat being sliced through, there was no blood pool where the body was discovered, suggesting that Beckett had been murdered elsewhere and then moved.

The case, investigated by Doyle and his team under great political pressure, is conducted (and narrated) with careful attention to procedural detail. Mr. Heffernan is able to fashion the procedural trail so that it is not only authoritative and authentic, but also intriguing and suspenseful.

The range of suspects includes the boy’s parents and members of the church they belonged to, many of whom seem ready to take the Lord’s retribution into their own hands. They have been urged on by the church’s head minister, who has used his pulpit to stir them up. Additionally, the minister’s son, a young man with a juvenile police record, has been one of Darlene Beckett’s playthings and may have his own motives. Another of Beckett’s bedmates is a would-be Lothario policeman soon removed from working on the case. Altered police records point a finger at him.

Harry Doyle and his new partner, the sharp and shapely Vicky Stanopolous, lead the investigation, with the help of an eager young deputy named Jim Morgan. However, something else is on Doyle’s mind. His mother is up for parole after twenty years in prison, and Doyle is determined that she be kept behind bars. His own testimony will be part of the parole hearing.

To read this review (with interview)  in its entirety, as it appears in the Naples (Dec. 30, 2010), Fort Myers (Dec. 29), and Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda (Dec. 30) editions of Florida Weekly, click here: Florida Weekly – William Heffernan pdf

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