Julia Geary is not a happy camper. She’s “mad as a feral cat” as she approaches her thirtieth birthday. She’s living with her mother-in-law Beverly, a “human switchblade, all spring-loaded lethality.” But Beverly isn’t Julia’s only problem. Not by a long shot. She’s also a single mother, juggling a career as a public defender in the town of Duck Creek. “Vail of the North” feels very much like Montana, but the state isn’t specified. Julia wants bigger cases. And her boss, Chief Public Defender Bill Decker, is happy to oblige. There’s a brand new incident and Julia would be “perfect for this particular defendant.”
Because Julia’s young husband lost his life as a solider in Iraq four years prior. And the defendant in this “perfect” new case is an Iraqi high school student, a refugee, accused of raping a white female student. The alleged attacker is Sami Mohammed. He’s not being cooperative. Julia tries to see the individual behind each case, each accusation. But Sami is making it tough. “The way the boy had looked at her, through her, as though she weren’t even there. The kind of look someone gave you if you’d ceased to exist in any meaningful way, so that it wouldn’t matter if you were erased from the earth. With an IED, for instance. He hadn’t killed her husband; she knew that … But the emptiness in those eyes—given the right circumstances, he could have. And if he could have done that, what might he have done to that girl?”
The whole town, it seems, happens to agree with that particular sentiment. The town has leapt to the “guilty” conclusion. Instantly, there are protestors. Sami’s case comes on the heels of community agitation and controversy over refugee resettlement programs. And some of the wrath is aimed squarely at Julia for, well, doing her job. She loses her son’s slot in a daycare center for the same reason—adding to Julia’s woes.
So Julia, naturally, digs in. She’s her own investigator and has more than a few questions about the circumstances about the alleged assault, which happened in the girls’ locker room and which included more than a few witnesses. The victim, Ana Olsen, claims the light wasn’t good enough for a solid identification of Sami.
The Truth of it All is crime fiction, sure, but it’s not the traditional set-up with a dead body in the first ten pages and a whole lot of clue-finding to follow. It’s as much character study of Julia Geary and the struggles of work politics, home politics, and politics politics. Julia digs in the library, visits Sami’s edge-of-town home, does her own snooping in the locker room in question. On the personal front, she ponders, slowly, the possibility of a new romance that might just tame some of that feral edge. But the “romance” angle is grounded and real-life gritty. It’s played as just another tangle in Julia Geary’s complicated, unsemtimental life.
And most of those complications begin with her status as war widow—she wouldn’t be living with her mother-in-law, for starters, if her husband had survived the war. Even though it’s been a few years, Julia’s late husband Michael is never far from Julia’s thoughts and the case with Sami provides fresh reason to revisit everything about her late husband’s sacrifice.
It’s a bit of cliché when the cop on the case gets placed on leave, theoretically making it harder to solve what needs to be solved but continuing to fight on, valiantly, nonetheless. Julia’s separation comes via budget woes, but the effect is the same—and Florio’s adept and nifty plot twist, now possible due to Julia’s newfound status as an ordinary citizen—is pretty darn sweet.
The Truth of It All clicks on three levels—mystery, character-study, and commentary on the modern-day pastime of rushing to judgment. That’s a fine triple play.
Q & A #27 with Gwen Florio regarding Missoula by Jon Krakauer.