Book Review: The Suicide

Book Review: The Suicide

13 December 2018 0 By Barbara Schmidt

The Suicide, by Mark SaFranko

(Honest Publishing, 279 pp., £13.99 / $23.99)

This novel follows a week in the life of detective Brian Vincenti from the Hoboken Police, New Jersey, from Tuesday 16th to Tuesday 23rd March 2002. The book opens on the tragic death of a young woman, Gail Kenmore, who either jumped or fell from the eleventh floor of her apartment building. Living around the corner, detective Vincenti ironically offers to make a quick police appearance on his way home: “You know the drill — do what you have to do to make ’em feel like we showed up”, Vincenti is told by his superior (The Suicide 5). In other words: “Dont waste any precious time on it” (5). From the outset, SaFranko’s terse style immerses readers into the harsh and often sordid reality of modern police work; one which does not even attempt to hide its powerlessness in the face of the world’s all-too-common atrocities; one in which the first drunken tramp of foreign origin, picked up from the streets, will make the perfect primary suspect in a rape case; one in which police officers call in sick on Saint Patrick’s because it is the worst and busiest day of the year. As an American author whose best-known works — his “Max Zajack” series of confessional novels — have often been affiliated with dirty realism, Mark SaFranko’s choice to conform to the popular taste for the anxious-and-forensic type of crime fiction is not surprising. What is original, however, is his reinterpretation of the genre.

The Suicide bears all the hallmarks of the American crime thriller with a tough, disillusioned and experienced cop in charge of the violent death of a beautiful young woman in her prime of life and whose dark secret is to be uncovered. Everything seems set up for an efficient homicide-dressed-as-suicide plot. Mystery is sustained by familiar red-herrings such as conflicting witnesses’ testimonies regarding the victim’s mental health, an odd medication for vertigo spells, a secret and scandalous love affair and the victim’s lover in the role of the ideal suspect. SaFranko also takes us down the path of the most hackneyed scenes of any police-procedurals with the routine investigation of the death scene, the traditional interviews and cross-examinations of witnesses, the insufferable clinical realism of the post-mortem report and the brutal interrogation of a suspect in a dingy police cell. SaFranko (ab)uses the clichés of the good old American thriller in order to better subvert them. For, if in genre fiction, readers have come to expect suicide to turn out to be murder, The Suicide is nothing more than what its title suggests. SaFranko mischievously acts counter-intuitively and does transgress S. S. Van Dine’s eighteenth writing rule by ending his “odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax”.[1]

Ironically, what Vincenti thought would be a wrapped-up case becomes strangely haunting. The detective’s inexplicable fixation on the suicide person, Gail Kenmore, is triggered by a painted portrait of her: “This room intrigued him. […] The detective knew at once that it was the likeness of Gail Kenmore — he didn’t know how, but he did. […] There was something vaguely familiar about the image, something he recognized in the sloping eyelids, the melancholy cast of the cartoonish blue eyes, the flare of the nostrils” (16). Defying all logic then, it is on the sole basis of an uncanny feeling of familiarity that detective Vincenti doggedly persists in his search for answers — even having recourse to a tarot reader — about this suicide girl he has never seen and whom, ironically, he will never see with his own eyes, other than on photographs, throughout the whole novel. Inexplicably reviving dark traumatic memories from the past, Vincenti’s obsession drives him to his doom, which SaFranko slowly unfolds to readers by interspersing the main narrative with the detective’s recurring nightmare. This original interplay between the conscious and unconscious mental states of the main protagonist foreshadows the novel’s witty metaphysical outcome with a shiver of anticipation. SaFranko’s novel therefore takes on an unexpected psychological, even existential, turn which transcends the mere thriller formula by which the novel seems at first to abide.

In The Suicide, the detective story proves to be a convenient vehicle for tackling touchy social and political issues such as youth suicide, rape, domestic violence, police brutality, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests or the place of marginalised minorities in North American society like Muslims and transgender individuals. Indeed, far from being limited to the depiction of the gradual psychological descent of the detective protagonist, SaFranko’s novel also features one of the first fully-realised transgender characters of crime literature. Completely shattering Vincenti’s heteronormative world view, his ex-partner Tommy Flaherty/Ellen Smith not only plays a pivotal role in the plot, but also ultimately functions as the writer’s best tool for making the detective and readers reflect on universal mysteries of being and knowing. Under the cover of a thrilling detective story, interestingly set in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 trauma, SaFranko raises a series of insoluble “whys?” starting with the obvious question “Why would a young woman with all of life ahead of her want to take her own in such a gruesome fashion?” (18) to the most metaphysical “why, Daddy? Why do the peoples have to die?” (32) as Vincenti’s four-year old son repeatedly asks his distraught father. First published in 2014 and aligning itself with the growing trend of whydunits in contemporary crime literature, The Suicide is a cleverly tied-up metaphysical detective novel which, in lieu of Yorick’s skull, constitutes an efficient and necessary contemporary reminder of mortality.

Estelle Jardon, M2 Mondes Anglophones


[1] Van Dine, S. S. [Willard Huntington Wright]. “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Howard Haycraft. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1946. 192.


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