Suzanne Berne

A Crime In The Neighborhood

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A Crime In The Neighborhood Summary

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A Crime in the Neighborhood is a 1997 work of historical crime fiction by Suzanne Berne. Winner of the 1999 Orange Prize for Fiction, it tells the story of a child’s murder in a suburban area of Washington, D.C. during the Watergate Scandal of the Nixon Presidency in the early 1970s. The novel uses the community’s reaction to the child’s murder case as a proxy for a larger societal change that occurred during the unfolding political crisis. Focusing not explicitly on the case, but rather uncovering deep emotional and intellectual shifts that inform the public perception of the death, she interrogates both the fragility and resilience of communities and nations.

Middle-aged Marsha Eberhardt is looking back on her life as a nine-year-old girl in the summer of 1972. She remembers the lazy, idyllic suburb, and the moment it was hit with the discovery of the molested body of a boy named Boyd Ellison in a wooded area near a mall. She also recalls her family drama, which she remembers as symptomatic of the Cold War era in which traditional conceptions of what constitutes a family and a nation were being constantly interrogated by the forces of globalization and distrust in government. Marsha delves into her knowledge of Boyd, illuminating select experiences they had together, pulling out local significance with which she tries to understand and reconstruct the truth behind his mysterious murder. Her account generates a powerful emotional and intellectual profile of a small, unheard voice adrift in the sea of change during the Nixon administration and sociopolitical entropy unfolding all over the world.

Marsha spends the bulk of the novel recalling the key themes and events in her childhood. Ostensibly living the American dream, her parents, Lois and Lawrence, run their affluent household. Underneath, Marsha is exhausted by the pretentiousness of her older siblings, twins Julie and Steve. Then, along with the murder in the town, Lawrence suddenly runs off with a secret lover, Lois’s sister, Ada. Both of these critical events happen in a span of a couple of weeks, leaving the Eberhardt family reeling. Terror and paranoia pervades the family’s life, not only because of these domestic troubles, but also, more implicitly, as the town responds to the beginning of the Watergate scandal.

As a somewhat neglected child, Marsha intimately feels the brunt of these complex forces. She recalls feeling as if everyone had spent their days committing crimes at that time in American history. Julie and Steve begin to smoke and shoplift items from stores. In reaction to her husband’s infidelity, Lois begins aggressively flirting with their new neighbor, Mr. Green. Having previously looked up to her father, and still sometimes struggling to hold him accountable, Marsha now finds no role model anywhere, believing that not even the president of the United States can be trusted. At the same time, she houses a suspicion that Mr. Green committed the murder, complicating her relationship with her mother and siblings, who are distracted by their own personal issues.

Marsha spends her free time observing the routine of Mr. Green from her house. Her investigation soon begins to blur the line between objective event and imagination, as she becomes more and more convinced of his culpability. Precocious and articulate, Marsha reflects on this experience from the present day, coloring it with her past innocence.

Ultimately, Marsha impugns Mr. Green without avail: the crime is never solved. In the present day, she is a successful attorney. Though she can never remove the stain of the Watergate scandal and the social tumult and local trauma that arrived in its wake, her career choice suggests the possibility of deliverance from trauma by dedicating oneself to bringing justice and order to a future world, deterring such tragedies from happening again. A Crime in the Neighborhood utilizes the resonances one child perceives in local and national history to depict all life and experience as a historical contingency that must be endured, remembered, and continuously re-negotiated if one is to arrive on good terms with one’s past.