By Elizabeth L. Silver

Crown Publishers, June, 2013 ($25.00)

ISBN-13: 978-0-385-23743-3

Reviewed by Sam Waas

EXECUTION is an exceptional first novel. It's brash, intelligent, sarcastic, and unique. Whether it qualifies technically as a mystery is another matter. Yes, there's an ostensible murder. Yes, crimes are committed. And yes, there is a significant plot twist that is slowly and skillfully revealed. But the novel is more of a literary tour de force by the author than a conventional mystery. Nevertheless it works, and it works beautifully.

Noa Singleton is a young woman on Pennsylvania death row, only one of a handful of women thus ensconced. She was convicted for the shooting death of a pregnant woman, and since it was during the commission of a felony and the fetus meets the "second person" rule, Noa qualified for capital punishment. Her appeals have been exhausted and she is only a few months from getting "the drip."

Most of the novel is an admonition, an exegesis of sorts from Noa, not necessarily seeking escape or absolution from her sentence, but instead searching for explanations as to how she found herself in this dark, blind alley. She's highly intelligent and educated, not a criminal per se, yet the long walk is nonetheless staring her in the face.

As the calendar advances, Noa receives a strange visit from an unexpected source. Marlene Dixon, mother of the woman whom Noa was convicted of shooting, is an esteemed trial attorney. She has undergone an apparent Damascus-road conversion and is sponsoring Mothers Against Death, or MAD. Marlene is mounting an appeal to the governor to halt the execution and asks Noa to cooperate toward this goal. Noa is at first skeptical of Marlene's epiphany but gradually accepts the truth: she may indeed escape death.

It's difficult to explain the strength and brilliance of EXECUTION, because the narrative itself supplies much of the drive. The chapters are full of offbeat dark humor, nuance, turns of phrase, exquisite complexity. It's a pleasure to read and savor each paragraph. Some examples:

These epigrams are scattered throughout, gems for us to find.

I do wish that someone would post a sign in the mystery writer's lounge, right above the coffee pot: Revolvers do not have safeties. Nor do you load a revolver by dropping cartridges down into the barrel. Nor are there 35-mm pistols. A nearly 2-inch bore would make quite a bang, I suppose, but more suited for a tank gun than something handheld. And yes, I realize some authors may not know the minutiae of weapons but it's also incumbent in a mystery that there be no egregious gun errors. An editor or proofreader should catch these mistakes. Imagine, for example, the character needing to wind up a cellphone before use, or getting out and cranking to start his car. Gun errors are the same, like assuming that everyone in Germany wears lederhosen, sloppy editing that makes a mystery fan stop and mentally jump the tracks.

But back to our story... Noa's narrative while on death row is eloquent. She looks into her youth, her many mistakes, her small victories, examines carefully the sequence of events that brought her here. She had previously given up and resigned herself, but the MAD support has understandably buoyed her confidence and has given her a reason to hope. Despair is now subdued and a new enthusiasm enters her diary.

EXECUTION examines the death penalty and seems to oppose it. But if you're a supporter of the capital punishment, do not let his dissuade you from enjoying this superb novel, as the book is not a soapbox rant nor a dissertation upon the law.

What is instead examined is truth and falsehood, belief in our human condition and trust in those around us, whether there is a genuine basis for a shared commonality or whether we are, in the final assessment, simply and terribly alone. EXECUTION is a bright, entertaining, and supremely readable glimpse into these tenets and foundations of our modern culture.

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