- Daniel Hecht | The Body Below by Daniel Hecht, Blackstone Publishing, 458 pages. $27.99.
The truth is out there! So said the tagline from "The X-Files," the vintage TV series about two FBI agents investigating strange occurrences. One is a skeptic guided by logic and verifiable evidence, the other a believer whose outlook challenges his partner's analytical, what-you-see-is-what-you-get view of the world. Neither one's approach is enough to get the job done. That's what makes them a perfect team.
Montpelier author Daniel Hecht's new novel, The Body Below, similarly focuses on a pair of brilliant minds unraveling a mystery in the only way each knows how. One focuses on facts, the time-stamped realities that can provide unequivocal answers. The other sees the truth as more subjective, something that varies from person to person based on feelings and experience. But each method leads them into dangerous and even deadly territory.
The Body Below takes place during a gorgeous summer in fictional Richfield, Vt., a Morrisville-like burg with a small downtown and plenty of natural beauty. Connor "Conn" Whitman, a middle-aged reporter for the Richfield Herald, a community newspaper with decent circulation, is known for penning a column called "Around Here." Not unlike Seven Days' "Stuck in Vermont" video series, "Around Here" highlights the color and quirks of small-town life.
Conn is a career journalist who formerly wrote important pieces for the Washington Post. After getting embroiled in an ethical quagmire while attempting to take down a corrupt senator, he left the renowned paper in disgrace — with a minor criminal record to boot — and retreated to his home state of Vermont to put his life back together.
He's fallen into a comfortable, committed-but-not-codependent relationship with Celine Gabrielli, a psychologist in the local school district who, like him, has a marriage in her rearview mirror. They spend their summer fixing up Conn's cabin, cooking healthy meals, basking on lakeshores and enjoying each other's bodies.
A long-distance open-water swimmer (much like the novel's author), Conn has found comfort and healing in the Green Mountains' lakes and reservoirs. On one of his near-daily dips, he collides with something floating just under the surface. He panics and retreats, fearing the bulbous, neutrally buoyant mass might be a dead body.
Chilled and mildly traumatized, Conn fears the worst when he finds out that his estranged sister, Laurel, is missing. What if the object he struck in the water was her body wrapped in plastic? But when the county sheriff's department searches the reservoir, it comes up empty-handed.
Despite the authorities' opposition, Conn and Celine begin their own investigation, sharing some information but keeping other things to themselves. Perhaps what holds them back are their opposed views of what constitutes truth. Journalist Conn believes in objectivity, that the existence of a given reality excludes its opposite. Celine, drawn to psychological profiling, believes there are shades of truth based on a person's lived history.
There are many layers in the life of Laurel, who has been living under a pseudonym, Trudy. Despite being whip smart and talented, she experienced her own decades-long downturn of domestic abuse and drug addiction — though, as Conn discovers through his investigation, she has more recently turned things around and made a modest but comfortable life for herself and her two young daughters.
As the couple peel back the layers, a host of suspects emerges and the body count rises. Could Laurel's presumed death be the result of a lover's spat? She's dated plenty of tough-guy creeps. Or perhaps her death was collateral damage in another tawdry plot. Or could it be connected to an investigation that Laurel herself was working on before her death, as Conn soon discovers?
The Body Below ruminates on themes of duality, or perhaps plurality, as do its dual narrators. Conn ponders how, for all the outward neighborliness of rural Vermonters, the state's "rugged landscape, tough winters, muddy dirt roads, poor radio and cell reception" lead to an "independent, isolationist attitude" that never dies. Perhaps that sense of seclusion was a factor in Conn and Laurel's inability to get over their estrangement.
Hecht examines opposites throughout. Take his water imagery: a world above the surface, another below. Then there's Laurel, the drug-addicted fuckup known for half a lifetime's worth of bad choices, who eventually becomes Trudy, a single mother who bootstraps her way into a healthier life.
Beyond duality, the author suggests there's a tenuous boundary between opposing states and that it doesn't take much to get from one to the other. As Celine ruminates, "Few people have had to face the twin ironies that love can beget murder and, sometimes, murder beget love, in a damning daisy chain that has wound through the history of the human family forever."
Hecht is the author of numerous mysteries and thrillers, including the bestseller Skull Session. Though The Body Below is a bit long at roughly 450 pages, and the mystery could have used one or two more twists, it's a mostly compelling procedural that benefits from its author's obvious familiarity with its setting. Longtime Vermonter Hecht knows how local police and school systems work, adding believability to his characters' crime scene investigations, witness interrogations and counseling sessions.
Most of all, Hecht brings to life two sleuths who are utterly believable Vermonters. Recently returned expat Conn and Celine, a flatlander still getting to know State 14's idiosyncrasies, are the type of charming childless couple you'd see strolling hand in hand at a farmers market or cuddling at a grange acoustic concert. The supporting characters are compelling, too, starting with foul-mouthed, slightly unhinged detective Marlene Selanski.
I have no idea if Hecht plans to write a sequel to The Body Below, but Conn, Celine and Selanski are too well drawn for him not to find more stories for them. A new murder, mentioned in passing about two-thirds of the way through, almost felt like a tee-up for an extended Connorverse.
From The Body Below
At the narrows, I switched to a sidestroke so I'd have a better chance of avoiding branches that might have washed downstream and slowed there. I kept my eyes open, dipping my head under at intervals to scout for obstacles. Beneath the surface, the water didn't permit a long view, just eight or ten feet of greenish glow, lit by the sky's fading light.
Halfway through the narrows, I paused to tread water and admire my lake's-eye view of the cliffs on each side: rugged bedrock topped by white birch trees bright against the deepening forest shadow. That was when my foot struck something heavy and solid. I flailed in panic and tucked my head under to look down. A large, pale mass was pivoting slowly away from my kick — an irregularly swollen shape, blue-white, the color of a cataracted eye tinted olive by the silt.
I clawed through the water to escape it.