Peter Blauner's Slipping Into Darkness is about a cop, a couple of murders, and a truly innocent man who spent the best years of his life in prison, wrongfully convicted of the first of those murders. It’s also about how a seemingly minor bit of manufactured evidence that, at the time, seemed to be simply the dressing on the salad that the suspect had obviously made, and was then used to convict the man. At the time, the detective saw it as simply one extra, securing nail in the coffin the suspect had already built.
Francis X Loughlin is a detective who’s counting the days until his retirement, and who has just learned that his eyesight is failing. Julian Vega is the man who, as a 17-year old high school student, was convicted of murdering a tenant in the building that he and his single father are in charge of. Francis’s failing eyesight seems to have been brought into the plot to invoke sympathy, or perhaps to show his vulnerability, but which I see as clumsily forced, whatever its purpose. It’s not needed to further the plot, nor is it germane to the plot, except in the most minor of circumstances. Its introduction was not necessarily a mistake, but once it was introduced it should have been made pertinent to the plot.
Julian is released on a technicality after serving almost 20 years of his sentence. Shortly after his release another similar murder is committed in the same city. Complicating the situation for Julian are many similar or identical circumstances, plus an added wrinkle which at first doesn’t carry the import that it later develops. The wrinkle eventually turns into the key to unlocking the secrets of the first murder, and which finally exonerates Julian.
The first 60 or so pages of this otherwise excellent novel are rather slow and convoluted, with sometimes aimless comments and dialogue. After that I have nothing but praise for it until the final few pages, when it drifts again. I don’t have a problem with the ending, just that it seems to again get lost on occasion. Omitting this part of the story would make the remaining dialogue leaner and crisper, making the novel tighter and cleaner, but with an otherwise same ending.
This book is more a psychological study of the characters than I care to read, but allowing that is an otherwise successful development in a novel that many readers enjoy, it’s not meant as criticism, but rather an observation. It is also a cursory psychological study of the cop, although in much less detail than the criminal aspects of the plot. This treatment could be completely eliminated and it would make it an even more powerful book.
These criticisms aside, I still feel Slipping Into Darkness is an excellent book, with good, solid progression of the plot, along with a truly surprising dénouement, which leads to a surprise complication in the murders, and which ameliorates to some degree the manufactured evidence. Manufacturing evidence can never be justified, of course, but the story tries to show how Francis makes it more palatable to himself. At the same time, it shows how over-reliance on seemingly foolproof laboratory procedural evidence, without considering and allowing for that one chance in a million variance that is always there, can damn a man. It can, and did, strip a man’s life from him and put him in prison from adolescence until he’s nearing middle age.
Overall, a very good read with original thinking and sometimes subtle execution of plot.