"When One Man Dies"
(Reviewed by Hagen Baye APR 26, 2008)
"I’ve killed three men in my life. One the police know about, two that I’ve kept to myself. For the fourth time in three months, I had blood on my hands, and all the forgotten images of the dead were swirling back to me. This time, however, I wasn’t doing the killing."
Already recognized for his short stories, 28-year-old grade school teacher Dave White has graduated to novel writing and his first novel is worthy of high grades. When One Man Dies is, in fact, an outgrowth of short stories by White about his character Jackson Donne and Bill Martin, Donne’s nemesis and former partner during Donne’s days on the New Brunswick (New Jersey) police force.
In Dies, Donne is a 27-year-old soon-to-be ex-private investigator. He’s grown disillusioned about being a private eye (“…people die who shouldn’t and you break people’s hearts, showing them things they ask you to find. Things they don’t really want to know.”) and is ready to return to school. At this juncture he’s already been an ex-cop for four years. He had either left or was forced off (it’s not clear) the New Brunswick police force after he informed his superiors about dirty dealings of his fellow colleagues on the narcotics squad. The entire squad gets fired, except for Martin who gets demoted. For reasons not disclosed in Dies, Donne keeps quiet about Martin’s role in those dirty dealings, despite his being the ringleader of the corrupt activities. Martin despises Donne, nevertheless, for getting their mates fired, for Martin’s demotion and, unbeknownst to Donne until the event in Dies, due to jealousy over Donne’s relationship with his now deceased fiancée, Jeanne. After Donne left the force and got heavily into coke and behaved in a manner that led Jeanne to believe he was unfaithful to her, Martin and Jeanne established an intimate relationship, which ended when Jeanne returned to Donne after he completed rehab. Six months before they were to wed, she is killed by a drunk driver.
Dies opens with Donne at lunch at The Olde Town Tavern with “drinking” buddy (really a reformed alcoholic who only imbibes coffee) and Olde Town regular Gerry Figueroa. Gerry bids Donne adieu, walks out of the bar and is promptly struck and killed by a hit and run driver. Witnesses tell police that there is little doubt that the driver purposely hit Gerry, and the homicide case gets assigned to none other than Bill Martin. Before Donne is aware of Martin’s involvement in the case, Artie, the Olde Town’s proprietor, talks Donne into investigating Gerry’s death.
Later that day, Donne is blessed with another case to help tide him over until the start of school. Despite his attempt to dissuade her from paying him for what will either result in nothing or in something she’d rather not know, Jan Hanover retains Donne to investigate whether her nightclub bouncer husband, Rex, is cheating on her.
These two seeming disparate cases are at the center of White’s first novel. As is typically the case in crime fiction, nothing is as it initially seems and that’s no truer here.
With respect to Gerry, both Martin and Donne discover that Gerry’s apartment was stacked with materials that one would use to manufacture crystal meth. Scared of how devastating such news would be to Artie and of how terribly it would tarnish Gerry’s reputation, Donne becomes none too eager to investigate Gerry’s death and, to Artie's consternation, permits the Hanover case to consume his time. However, Artie’s anger makes already guilt-ridden Donne feel that much more terrible about other promises that he had failed to keep, particularly to his still beloved Jeanne.
With respect to the Hanover case, Donne follows Rex and witnesses Rex’s dragging the body of a dead woman out of an apartment building. A potential philander is now a murder suspect. Donne discovers that the dead woman is a substitute teacher and his investigation leads him to discover that she was dealing drugs. He concludes her murder is related to her drug dealing and suspects the major drug lord of the area, a Michael Burgess, has something to do with it. Donne also suspects that Burgess is connected with drug-dealing Gerry’s murder.
Along the way, Donne gets beat up, he beats up one and shoots the second thug who had given Donne $5,000 to stay off the Hanover case (Donne keeps the money and stays on the case), gets picked up by the police twice, arrested the second time and tricked by his nemesis Bill Martin into surrendering his private-eye license.
At the end, to the reader's great surprise, “everything is connected” in ways initially unimaginable, but pulled off quite impressively by White. White knows how to reveal bits and pieces about characters and their past in a systematic fashion. With some authors a reader is not always clear as to how the author arrived at the conclusion. With White, there is no such confusion.
Nonetheless, readers of a certain age may smile at White's relating how Donne recognized Martin's anger after "years on the force." Now, if Donne is 27 during the events of Dies and if he left the police force four years prior, at the tender age of 23, how many years could he have been a police officer? "Years on the force" implies a lot more years than Donne could have possibly been a police officer and reveals how White's own youth distorts his perception of age.
Further, the reader wonders about certain background details in Dies, like did Donne resign or get fired from the police force, what exactly were the dirty dealings that he and his fellow officers were involved with and why hadn’t he informed about Martin? These issues are actually addressed in White’s short stories about the Donne character, but for some reason they are not mentioned in Dies and the reader is left scratching his/her head about them.
None of the foregoing detracts from the fact that this is a truly fine first novel and that crime fiction fans should definitely be on the lookout for White's next book.
- Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from When One Man Dies at Random House
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Dave White
- Shotsmag short story by Dave White: Down to the River
- Laura Lippman's interview with Dave White (2007)
- Page 69 Test of When One Man Dies
- Thrilling Detective on Jackson Donne
- Mystery Ink review of When One Man Dies
- Armchair Interviews review of When One Man Dies
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About the Author:
Dave White was born in 1979, is among the youngest winners of the Derringer Award. He has contributed to many anthologies and collections, including The Adventure of the Missing Detective and Damn Near Dead.
Dave lives in New Jersey, where he teaches middle-school English.