The Life We Bury is a debut mystery slash thriller novel by Allen Eskens. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I generally like my protagonists in mystery novels to be plucky and on the outskirts of society and, well… female. I am trying to branch out a bit (for some reason) and I picked up this book. In it, college student Joe Talbert is our main character. He is a guy escaping his terrible family and trying to build a better future for himself. In order to do that he has to get through college, relying on his unreliable mother to take care of his younger brother with special needs. Predictably, she is the worst.
Joe has been given a writing assignment for an English class where he needs to interview an older relative and write something of a biography. Because of the aforementioned “the worst” status of his mother, he decides to choose a stranger to write about and goes to a nearby nursing home to see if someone would agree to tell their story. There he meets a convicted murderer, Carl Iverson, who has been moved to the home for his final months of life dealing with a terminal cancer.
Carl has been in prison for thirty years for the rape and murder of a young woman and Joe convinces Carl (through some low level Silence of the Lambs type quid pro quo action where I could not stop thinking “well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?”) to tell his story. Joe learns about Carl’s heroic acts in Vietnam and has a hard time reconciling his character to the things that he has been charged with. Along with his neighbor, Lila, Joe starts to do his own investigation of the long solved murder and finds the danger still very much alive.
The mystery here is somewhat formulaic and the dangers in the plot are sometimes groan inducing. I wish Joe had read one of those mystery novels I like before deciding to go confront someone completely alone out in the middle of nowhere. The book takes place in Minnesota, which is an excellent and vivid backdrop for this story and he writes it very well. The other great part of the book is the very real struggle Joe deals with from his family, which pulls him in and out of the story as his mother’s antics affect him and the internal struggles he has about wanting a better life vs. staying where you are to take care of those who need you.
As far as debut novels go, this was a good one and I will definitely tune in for number 2.
Grade – B-
Up Next – I cannot get away from dumb books about red flag averse women marrying controlling and psychotic men (you guys what’s wrong with me?) in The Vanishing Year and then nerd out big time with Edison and Westinghouse drama in The Last Days of Night