Witness for the Prosecution
For an author, acquiring book reviews on Amazon is a difficult task, at best. Amazon imposes strict restrictions on the posting of reviews, and if they are not met, down come the reviews. That is like getting kicked in the head for the author, who depends on reviews for credibility.
My book MURDER IN PALM BEACH: The Homicide That Never Died garnered 99 reviews with a four-star average – until Tuesday, June 5, when a five-star review came down, leaving the book with 98 reviews. I don’t know which one it was, and much doubt that Amazon, in its inscrutable ways, will reveal whose review it was, or even why it was removed.
But that wasn’t the worst thing that happened. Two days before, a one-star review was posted. It was short and to the point – a knife point: “It was a very poorly written book. The storyline was very exaggerated and quite unbelievable.”
Now, that wouldn’t ordinarily bother me much. I’d just chalk it up to someone who is literarily obtuse. I say that out of confidence that my writing is high-quality. A venerable New York agent responded to my manuscript submission by saying, “You write well, and your dialogue is good, hard to do.” Agents only provide a custom reply, instead of an automated form, if they find sufficient value in the novel to take the time. (She declined to represent me because the several early storylines lacked a focus on any one, a criticism I agreed with; I was trying to be as faithful as possible to actual events in a novel based on a real murder that gave rise to numerous scenarios as to the perpetrator.)
Further, my professional editor, who did a great job in suggesting additions, opined that I was an “immensely gifted writer” whose dialogue he could devote two pages to praising for its authenticity. (Take that, reviewer who, in awarding three stars, wrote: “… the contrived dialogue is distracting annoying. who talks like that ?” A better question: Who writes like that? At least he found it “entertaining.” I do believe this reviewer was sincere – on both counts.)
And a literature professor who reviewed my first novel wrote that the “writing style is clear and attractive. His sentences and paragraphs are well turned. His descriptions of persons and places are vivid and insightful … his evocative prose has polish and grace.”
On the other end of the review spectrum from the prosecutor’s wife are those such as the woman who put me in a league with John Grisham, and another who wrote that “crime fiction may just have a new star in Bob Brink.” While I am immensely grateful to those reviewers and to my editor, I am sufficiently sober-minded to realize that I may not be “immensely gifted,” and I am no John Grisham.
So what would cause this one-star person to write such a damning review? I wondered. The person didn’t sound ignorant, even using a literary term: “storyline.” And then my eyes fell on the person’s name. Out of libel concerns, I won’t reveal it, but I am 99 percent certain it was the wife of the villain in the novel, the prosecuting attorney who framed the man who spent 15 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.
You see, MURDER IN PALM BEACH is a special kind of novel. It’s a roman à clef, also referred to as “faction,” a novel based on real events and/or persons. To be clear, the convicted man was not a sympathetic character. He was a karate expert who was continually in trouble with the law, and might have spent two or three years in prison even without the murder conviction. But he was no killer – a sheriff’s detective even conceded that – and he did, in fact, save the life of a prison guard during a riot by inmates.
And the politically ambitious prosecutor with the state attorney’s office (who lost an election for a Florida Legislative seat) went on to become a highly successful private attorney whose wealth is in the millions. Newspaper stories have extolled him and his wife, dedicated Catholics, for the work they have done on behalf of the homeless in Palm Beach County. But he never has admitted that he had framed the karate expert by getting several jail inmates to testify that the man had confessed to the murder, with the promise of reduced sentences. Despite a total lack of evidence of the man’s guilt, the prosecutor even supported attempts to have the convicted man sentenced to death.
Just the facts, ma’am
The murder happened in 1976, and the prosecutor told me in a 2001 telephone interview I conducted for a planned magazine story that the jury had found the karate expert guilty, and there was no reason to doubt the verdict.
Although I invented a few characters in the book and imagined what some whom I knew only a little about might be like, the actual events and persons involved in the crime and its investigation are real. For the legal aspects of the case, I borrowed heavily from 148 newspaper stories covering 18 years.
The storyline, except for the last 10 percent, is based wholly on fact, and is, indeed, quite believable – because it happened.
The reader is encouraged to judge for hermself (my gender-neutral pronoun). Besides boasting 98 reviews, MURDER IN PALM BEACH has for 12 weeks ranked as an Amazon Kindle No. 1 best seller in one category, and is in approximately the top one-tenth of one percent in Paid in the Kindle Store. Libraries report it’s much in circulation. The book is obviously garnering a lot of attention.
Hmmm. Could that be what prompted the discrediting, dishonest review?