Criminal Elements

Before and After

by Rosellen Brown
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 354 pp., $21.00

Black Dogs

by Ian McEwan
Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, 149 pp., $19.50

Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan; drawing by David Levine

Rosellen Brown’s recent novel, Before and After, and Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs both explore the effects of an act of unfathomable violence on a family. Though Before and After centers on a murder, it is, more than a reconstruction of events, a psychological analysis of the impact of those events on the family. Black Dogs is harder to place, an uneasy mixture of mystery, contemporary history, and novel of ideas.

Before and After is an examination of the disintegration of a family following a murder, and of the moral consequences of that murder. The Reisers are the perfect nuclear unit, two parents, a teen-age son, a younger daughter. A liberal couple with, one is certain, some political activism in its past, Ben and Carolyn—she is a pediatrician, he a sculptor and a Jew—have left New York to raise their children in the idyllic country town of Hyland, New Hampshire, population 5,000. But living the simple life proves highly complex. To the locals, the family, while accepted on the surface, remain outsiders, too privileged, too well-educated. Ben himself notices that when he talks to his neighbors, even those he thinks of as friends, he aims for the casual and hearty, dropping a few words here and there, “as if complete sentences were pretentious.” But such small accommodations seem to them worth what they see as the good life.

Their complacency comes to an end the moment Carolyn sees the body of a young girl, her head smashed in, lying on a hospital operating table, and clearly the victim of an assault. Accidents happen in Hyland, but rarely murder, where, Carolyn thinks, “gossip…did the damage between antagonists that guns did in cities.” The dead girl, Martha Taverner, is from the town, a high-school classmate of Jacob’s, Carolyn and Ben’s seventeen-year-old son, and she was found dead on the side of a road.

It later becomes clear that Jacob and Martha were sleeping together, and, when Jacob himself disappears, his link to the crime is inescapable. The town’s police chief, Fran Conklin, asks to search the house and Jacob’s car. Carolyn initially acquiesces, partly because she is unable to believe Jacob is the killer, partly out of an earnest moral belief in the value of candor, reason, and authority. But Ben refuses and, before the police can return with a warrant, he frantically searches Jacob’s car. Finding nothing suspicious in the front or back seat, he is about to hand it over to the police, when he thinks to look in the trunk:

The trunk…rose with the slow deliberation of a drawbridge, and then I thought I’d fall over for lack of breath. Because I knew I was looking at blood….I could see the shape of the splotches and worse, the little splatters that had flown off something. The something, I suspected, was the jack.

Ben painstakingly dismantles the bloody jack, hides the…

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