Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka

My new favorite book.

I am a fan of crime fiction, but I’ll admit the genre can be a bit stale at times. Someone I know, not a fan, described it as too “rat-a-tat-tat” for his taste. Fair enough, I guess.

Much of the time the formula is part of the fun. Readers of crime fiction don’t necessarily want to be challenged with experimentation or troublesome themes. A decent story. Decent characterization. Snappy dialogue. A plot that moves to the comfort a solved puzzle brings.

You won’t find that kind of comfort in Danya Kukafka’s Notes on an Execution.

The trouble starts with the opening scene told in the second person present. You are in a cell, convicted of multiple murders, awaiting your execution. I’m not a fan of the present tense or of the second person. I admit, I skipped ahead to make sure this wasn’t going to last the entire novel. No way I’m reading 300 pages of second person present tense.

The killer’s point of view comes in the second person present tense as he goes through his final day. He reviews key incidents in his own life, including the crimes he committed, what his legacy might be, what it feels like to experience death row and the routine of his execution. He does not die until the final pages of the novel. This turned out to be pretty riveting stuff, made more immediate by the use of second person present. A gimmick that worked very well as far as I’m concerned.

The bulk of the book switches point of view between a set of women whose lives intersect with the killer’s. Time is given to his mother, the abuse she suffered at the hands of the killer’s father, how she escaped him by leaving her two sons, the four-year-old future killer and his infant brother behind when she escaped to a commune in California; the girls he grew up with after being placed in foster care and failing to find a family that would keep him, one of whom becomes his first victim, the other becomes the detective who eventually arrests him; the young woman he marries and her twin sister who always suspects something is wrong with him; and finally, the niece he never knew he had who finds him after her father dies and makes him a part of her family and the restaurant business they run.

This all worked to make Notes on an Execution much more than a crime novel.

I admired how well these voices worked to present a thorough picture of how the killer came to be. Was there any point in his life when he could have taken a different path? His brother grows up to be a “fine young man” by anyone’s definition. He’s a success as a person. Did the violence and abandonment the killer survived by age four mark him for failure? for violence? What if he had grown up with his brother instead of being told his baby brother had died the day his mother abandoned them? Had his mother sent the letters she wrote him instead of remaining essentially in hiding would he have turned out differently?

That all of the other forces acting on the killer’s life are woemn is also part of why I liked the book so much. There are men in his life, of course, but it was interesting to see a book in this genre focused on the women characters. Even his lawyer is a woman. I don’t think I’ve seen this in a crime novel before.

Finally, I appreciated how realistic the crime solving felt in Notes on an Execution. About 50% of murder cases are closed in America. Closed means someone is charged with the crime. They may or may not be convicted, they may or may not be guilty. So, any random killer has at least a 50% chance of getting away with it. That’s a coin toss. There are no criminal geniuses, just a police force that, for some set of reasons, is not very good at solving crime.

We see this play out in Notes on an Execution. The killer is not smart. He’s not good at crime. He acts impulsively has no grand scheme he is working through. He just a failure of a man who gets angry and then gets lucky when he detectives on his case end up charging the wrong man at the insistence of their captain. This case is lost, and the killer remains free for decades. The detective who eventually catches him is more dogged than skilled. She had evidence on him that the police captain refused to consider so she continues to pursue him for years. She tries to warn off the woman who marries him, then years later warns the niece about him. When the niece breaks off contact, the killer murders his now ex-wife which is the crime that finally brings him to justice. But it’s only when he slips up in the interrogation room that he is convicted. Had he been smart enough to remain silent he would have gotten away with it all. No one on either side of the interrogation table was really all that clever. Just finally there at the right time when coin toss landed on heads.

This makes Notes on an Execution less satisfying as a traditional crime genre novel but helps give the book a much more powerful impact overall. The whole cast of characters remain in my thoughts several days after reading it when many of them would have been minor notes along the way in a more typical crime novel. That’s what I think I like most about this book. It’s not just the murderer’s story or the detective’s story. It’s the story of nearly everyone involved, how so many lives of so many women were ultimately affected by the violence the killer, maybe the killer’s father, brought into the world.

And this makes Notes on an Execution my new favorite book.

2 thoughts on “Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka

  1. I loved this one too – I thought it was a really interesting take on the crime novel, centring the people in the orbit around the killer.

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