THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE By Edna Buchanan (Random House, 275 pages, $25.95)
During her 16 years as a reporter for The Miami Herald, Edna Buchanan has covered more than 5,000 violent deaths, many of them murders. The Corpse Had a Familiar Face is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist’s chronicle of her years on the police beat in a city with one of North America’s highest crime rates. Buchanan opens her book by acknowledging that murder has always fascinated her. “It’s so final,” explains the middle-aged, twicedivorced woman, who has no children and lives alone with four cats. In a devilishly deadpan style, she goes on to describe some of the more bizarre murders and mishaps that she has covered. Her first homicide was that of a religious bookseller beaten to death with a metal object of unknown origin that, she writes, resembled “an elephant-sized QTip.” And she recalls the unsolved murder of a coast guard lieutenant and his wife, noting that police found 81 poodles in the couple’s garage.
Buchanan’s writing is as direct, detailed and precise as a coroner’s. She recounts an interview with Nathaniel Pressley, who told her—following a murder rampage in which he fatally shot five people—that he considered himself to be “an average teenager.” She has written about victims who were murdered for sitting in someone else’s chair or for treading on somebody’s toes. Buchanan makes a strong case for her belief that truth is often stranger than fiction, and she cites a crash in the Everglades that left what she calls a “planeload of falsies” strewn all over the trees.
What emerges from Buchanan’s anecdotes is a chilling portrait of Miami— and of a society in which crime has become alarmingly commonplace. Beneath her reporter’s objectivity is a highly subjective compassion for victims. One day, when an editor asked Buchanan to restrict her stories to “major murders,” she countered that every murder is a major one for the victim. For all its acid wit and brilliantly observed ironies, The Corpse Had a Familiar Face is a deeply disturbing book. In Buchanan’s hands, the face of murder does become familiar—and haunting—to the reader.
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