Book: Only the Truth
Author: Pat Brown
Publisher: Self Published
“With the (house on) fire burning so close, we sat there with sweat pouring down our faces. But we sat there anyway, mesmerized by the fire. I was just happy to be with Charlene, a Charlene with a smile on her face who was talking again.”
There is a striking beauty to this passage that accomplishes so much. First, it proves that this novel is not just an ordinary mystery, written with an attention to prose that is more literary than mainstream. Second, it establishes our hero, Billy Ray, for who he is.
He doesn’t care that his new neighbor’s house was torched to the ground in a blaze. He’s happy because his girl, Charlene, is pleased to watch it burn, even in the middle of the summer’s heat.
You see, Billy Ray is a simple man. He’s a short, black, illiterate, small-town street sweeper who’s not very bright. One day (two years prior to this passage), he meets a random woman who calls herself Charlene. He takes her in without question. She’s sweet to him and he’s sweet to her. And that’s all that matters.
But then, one day, a strange, elderly man moves into the neighborhood. Charlene turns dark at the stranger’s arrival. She becomes reserved. Withdrawn. Then the neighbor’s house catches fire and the forensic investigators discover that this “John Doe” was shot dead before the blaze.
So the novel kicks off strong. Charlene is accused, put in jail and on trial. As the novel progresses, poor Billy Ray discovers that his sweet Charlene is not as innocent as he believed. As the evidence comes forth, the reader finds her to be manipulative, a former prostitute, a cheat and possibly involved with a previous murder and slaughter much worse than the one that has put her on trial now.
I’ve never been so intrigued by a novel like this before. I didn’t expect it to turn into a mystery story, but it took hold of my attention quickly and held on as Billy Ray goes on a journey to discover Charlene’s past. Is Charlene the monster that everyone says she is, or is there a piece of the puzzle missing? That’s the question that drives Billy Ray (and the reader) forward.
The prose is strong, and Pat Brown (the author) never settles for trite or negligent descriptions.
Phrases like “You could have cut potatoes with her voice it was so sharp” and “The look the Chief gave me could have chilled a bowl of chicken soup in August,” help distinguish the writing from the ordinary mystery book.
Billy Ray feels extremely real in this story, and so does every character he comes across. The first-person narrative is executed to perfection. Too often, a first-person narrator in other novels comes across forced or trite, or worse, unnecessary. There should be a purpose to writing a story in the first person, and in this case, that purpose is to limit the reader’s perception through Billy Ray’s simple-minded nature. This is done so well here.
Plus the book doesn’t shy away from thematic depth. For example, Billy Ray, who is just an honest and innocent simpleton is held under suspicion by almost everyone he meets. Everyone immediately thinks he’s guilty of something, whether he’s accused of helping Charlene burn the house down or of somehow being connected to another black man from Charlene’s dark past.
This constant barrage of accusations make the reader ponder, “Is Charlene really guilty then? If this poor, innocent, stupid man gets accused of all these crimes he never did, then maybe Charlene is innocent herself…”
Or worse, at times the constant accusations tossed against Billy Ray make the reader wonder whether this man is as innocent as he presents himself to be. Maybe he’s the one hiding something.
Either way, the novel handles this theme of innocence vs. accusation masterfully, keeping the reader guessing, and wanting to know the truth, until the very end.
At the end, the novel does deliver the truth, if only in a manner a bit rushed. That was the only drawdown to the entire novel, which, up until the conclusion, had paced itself so perfectly. If only this novel had slowed down at the end to re-juggled some of the previous tensions, or built up more suspense before giving away the answers, it would have deserved a solid five stars.
Four-and-a-half stars is justly good and truthfully deserved for “Only the Truth.”