Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: Living Witness

Title Living Witness: A Gregor Demarkian Novel (Gregor Demarkian Novels)
Author Jane Haddam
Rating ****
Tags mystery, series, fbi, gregor demarkian, evolution 

This is the twenty-fourth in the Gregor Demarkian series by Jane Haddam, and the first in the series that I've read. I picked it because I saw a summary that made it clear it is set against a backdrop of a battle over evolution in schools similar to the one that actually took place in Dover, Pennsylvania, which is a big interest of mine.

Demarkian is a second-generation Armenian, who lives in an Armenian neighborhood in Philadelphia. He is a retired FBI agent who now consults with police. He is called into the small town of Snow Hill, Pennsylvania where a 91 year-old resident, Annie-Vic Hadley, is in a coma after being viciously beaten. She is on the school board, and one of the plaintiffs in a case against the rest of the school board, who voted to include stickers in the public school biology textbooks that say that some people don't accept evolution and for more information see a particular book that advocates intelligent design.

As Gregor investigates, another plaintiff is found murdered.

Demarkian finds a town divided. It is not simply fundamentalist Christians against those who support teaching evolution. Snow Hill is on the edge of Appalachia, and the hill people, a slightly less pejorative term for hillbillies, are despised by the townspeople. The townspeople, in turn, are mostly despised by the people in the "development", people who are not native to Snow Hill and for the most part want the town to change to be less provincial and to provide the kind of education tht will get their children into Ivy league schools.

Haddam creates fascinating characters and shows some of their thoughts, and in this way illustrates the differing sides in the turmoil. Some fulfill the stereotypes, such as a couple of the school board members who are willfully ignorant and proud of it; or, conversely, the school principal who is a native of the town but knows evolution is a fact and does not want to dilute teaching that fact. Others are less expected, such as the Holiness preacher who is a hillbilly who loves books, and not just those that come from Christian publishing houses. He has started a church school and is determined that the children of the hill people get a good education in an environment where they are not so despised. Then there is the police chief, a former Marine who calls in Demarkian because he, himself, is a suspect, and who has an act of superhuman bravery in his past.

I've always believed that fiction can tell psychological truths in a way that non-fiction cannot, and Haddam does a good job of proving it. By giving voice to the people of the town, she humanizes the viewpoints of people whose beliefs span a broad range. It isn't always comfortable - for example, she shows that people with my viewpoint can be as fanatical and irrational as those with the opposite view. But it IS enlightening. Haddam, in the after note, explains her own views on the controversy. She believes that evolution is a fact, just as gravity is a fact, even though the mechanisms by which both of these work are not yet completely understood. She is, however, concerned that there is an increasing view that everything that is not science is superstition, and that this view throws out not only what may be good in religion, but in the arts as well.

Did I like the book? Well, I've ordered the first in the series from my local library. You be the judge.

Publication Minotaur Books (2009), Edition: 1, Hardcover, 400 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 0312380860 / 9780312380861

Posted via web from reannon's posterous

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