In those days…I also loved the quickening smell of lighter fluid and charcoal on summer evenings, when every house became a campsite, the street became a river, and we ran through dark backyards to the sinuous burble of television sets.
Then my father left, and a few months after that Boyd Ellison was killed behind the Spring Hill Mall, and what happened in our neighborhood began to seem less and less like what happened in neighborhoods.
A Crime in the Neighborhood is narrated by Marsha Eberhardt, now an adult, looking back on one eventful summer in Washington in 1972. Played out against the Watergate scandal and the deepening crisis in American society, this coming of age novel deftly explores a time in the Seventies when the idea of perfect family life was starting to disintegrate, alongside a fractured political world.
The ‘crime’ of the title seems to refer most directly to the murder of a local boy, Boyd Ellison, who is molested and dumped behind the local shopping mall. Marsha did not like Boyd and remembers him as a boy who was always taking more than he should and for a time, the murder elicits excitement within the local community rather than fear.
We were exhilarated. Nothing so enormous and glittering had ever happened to us before. We were jealous of Boyd Ellison not because he had been killed – of course not that, we had never felt so alive ourselves – but because he had encountered something legendary.
Berne is very good at juxtaposing these things – the horror of the murder and the sometimes incongruous response to it, and perfectly captures the reactions of a ten-year old to this kind of monumental event.
It soon transpires that Boyd’s murder is not the main focus of the novel. That takes place in a more subtle, domestic domain, where smaller cruelties have just as devastating consequences. A month before the murder, Marsha’s father Larry has run off with his wife’s younger sister Ada leaving Marsha and her twin siblings with nothing more than a new wristwatch and the explanation that ‘it is what it is’. As Marsha’s mother tries to hold the family together and deal with her own betrayal, Marsha is left to her own devices in a neighborhood on high alert and her interest eventually turns to Mr Green, the only bachelor to live on her street and the person Marsha is convinced has killed Boyd Ellison.
Marsha is a wonderful creation – a quiet, watchful child, smart but still naïve enough to be unable to separate the implosion within her family with the crime that has shaken her neighborhood.
Although I couldn’t have explained it then, I believed that my father’s departure had deeply jarred the domestic order not just in our house, but in the neighborhood, and by extension in the country, since in those days my neighborhood was my country. My father left to find himself, and a child got lost. That’s how it struck me.
She is a fascinating yet unreliable narrator and as she collects newspaper clippings and takes notes in her Evidence book when she is ten, Berne suggests that as an adult, she is still collecting evidence, still trying to solve the mystery of why her father abandoned her and why she herself committed a crime of her own.
Sometimes things like this start small, but then they get out of control. That’s what happens. It doesn’t take long for a lousy mistake to turn into a crime
Marsha’s attempts to reconcile her love for her father with his actions are at the core of the book. Unlike her Noel Coward quoting cynical older twin siblings, Marsha feels his loss keenly and as suspicion and fear envelopes her local community, her need for a father and all that a father signifies – safety, comfort, stability – is more acutely felt. As she watches the men on her street each evening complete their neighborhood watch, her loss is palpable.
I fell in love with all of them. I dreamed of being carried by each man, pressed to each of their chests as they carried me to safety, passing me down a long line of fathers.
Ultimately though, A Crime in the Neighborhood is about judgment. How do we decide what constitutes a crime? Is it a murder? An abandonment? A false accusation? Or is it just being willing to live outside societies norms as Mr Green does?
Berne insightfully explores the consequences of our judgements and how we must ultimately judge ourselves and our own actions. As Marsha tries to bring some sense of normality to her fractured world, her mistaken belief that everything will be right if she unmasks Boyd’s killer turns out to have dire consequences.
Looking back, it seems to me that those gallant fathers intended, by sheer physical effort, to return our neighborhood to what it had never actually been
Marsha is doing the same, trying to return her family to what it had never actually been and never could be again, so much so that even years later she notes
There I was, ten years old all over again, and he had just left me, and the world was a wide place in the dark, and right then I understood as if for the very first time that nothing in my life would ever feel safe.
A Crime in the Neighborhood is a beautifully written, vividly evocative book that perfectly captures that romance of 1970s suburbia in the manner of say Jeffrey Eugenide’s The Virgin Suicides. Unlike that book, Berne’s feels rooted in reality – believable, recognisable and universal.
Read On: Kindle
20 Books of Summer: 4/20
Number Read: 122
Number Remaining: 624