Telling a dark story about investigative reporting and the people involved in it, Pete Dexter sets his story in 1965 - 1969, in Moat County, Florida. Jack James, the narrator, is a college dropout who works as a driver and general gofer for his idealistic brother Ward, a reporter for the Miami Times, and his writing partner, Yardley Acheman, an attention-seeking dandy. The two writers are investigating the possibility that Hillary Van Wetter, convicted of the murder of the sheriff in the town where Ward grew up, may have had an alibi--along with an incompetent attorney. Charlotte Bless, an attractive woman who has a fetish for death row inmates like Hillary, aids them by providing mountains of files she has collected about the murder.
As Ward and Yardley investigate, Dexter explores the newspaper business. Questions they raise about Van Wetter's legal counsel, a famous good-ol'-boy attorney, affect the reputation and popularity of Ward James's father, owner of the local newspaper, sending his ad revenues plummeting. When Ward is physically unable to continue working on the story, Acheman and an editor from Miami rush the story into print and the second phase of the novel begins.
Ward James and Yardley Acheman, represent the drive of reporters to succeed and their tendency to identify personally with their stories. The aftereffects of the reporters' investigation into the Van Wetter case, which constitute phase two, grow exponentially, further affecting the reporters, Ward James's father, Charlotte Bless, and, obviously Hillary Van Wetter, as the national media become involved. Along the way, Dexter raises ethical questions, not just about the ethics of reporting, but about the ability of the press to control outcomes and public perceptions. Ultimately, he raises the issue of whether justice is served when the egos of reporters and the desire to sell newspapers cause the media to lose their sense of perspective and cloud their judgment about what is right.
Dexter, an outstanding writer of (sometimes earthy) dialogue is brilliant in his selection of revealing details, especially the mannerisms of his sometimes odd characters--how they move, speak, and respond to direct questions. Ultimately, most of them face ironic destinies. While this novel may not have the intense thematic focus of Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award in 1988, it raises important issues regarding the press, and in the process tells an exciting story about the search for justice. Mary Whipple