As Marty Smith's Straw Menopens, Carmen DellaVecchio—the media call him the Scarecrow—has just been released from prison pending a new trial after serving eight years for attempted murder. DellaVecchio, who suffers from diminished capacity thanks to his mother's habit of boozing it up while he was still in the womb, was convicted of the brutal beating and rape of policewoman Teresa Harnett. Beaten with a bottle and then sexually assaulted with that same bottle, Harnett was not expected to live, but reconstructive surgery, therapy and the support of her policeman husband, David, have enabled her to lead a semblance of a normal life. But now pieces of memory about the attack are starting to surface—pieces that don't match the picture she had carefully constructed after the assault.
The police and the DA are still convinced DellaVecchio is their guy and now face the prospect of a new trial with a star witness who isn't so sure anymore. Smith's hero, psychologist Jim Christensen, is a respected memory expert called in to help Harnett remember what truly happened that night eight years ago. At the same time, Christensen's lover, Brenna Kennedy, the attorney who unsuccessfully defended DellaVecchio at his original trial, is working once again to prove his innocence.
Smith is a former Orange County Register columnist and Orange Coast editor. I reviewed his first book when it came out and generally liked it, despite a couple of gaping plot holes. I'm pleased to report he's getting better. Straw Men is a good, solid, entertaining mystery about some very serious subjects: the fallibility of memory, witnesses' susceptibility to manipulation by others with their own agendas, and the dangers of wanting to discover the truth about your past. I did figure out whodunit at about page 200, but that's par for the course with mysteries. And, more important, there were times when I forgot I was reading to review and instead simply enjoyed the book as a good yarn.
One of the most admirable things about the book is its restrained handling of a subject that could too easily turn unpleasantly voyeuristic. The central crime in the novel is a woman savagely beaten with a bottle and then raped with it after it broke, leaving her lacerated, bleeding and virtually unrecognizable. Yet Smith never leers at the crime, never invites us to vicariously enjoy her pain in our darker, hidden, sadistic side.
Straw Men ain't the Great American Novel, but that's not what Smith is shooting for. He has written what he set out to write: an entertaining book ideal for lugging along to the beach or—given that we're in monsoon season here in SoCal—curling up with next to a fire while the rain lashes at the windows and cars skid into one another on the 405.