A young man sat waiting patiently, if it could actually be said that someone could wait patiently for his own execution; he had prepared himself and was hoping to die with dignity. Not quite 42, he had spent half of his life behind bars, convicted of the gruesome, double murder of his parents. Out of the blue, at the last minute, he suddenly received a stay of execution, although all of his prior appeals have been turned down. Why? It seemed that someone else had confessed to the crime. That claim was being investigated, and if verified, he would be set free.
Melvin Mars had been looking at a bright future with the NFL, as a tailback, when for no apparent reason, his parents, a mixed race couple, were murdered. He was accused and convicted of the crime. The successful trajectory of his life was altered. Why would he kill his parents with such a wonderful life awaiting him? Who were his parents? Did they have an unusual past? Did they have enemies? Mars was going to earn big bucks as a football player. Did they want a piece of it? Would a demand for money have constituted his motive for murder?
A special task force had recently been created to investigate wrongful convictions and Amos Decker, who suffered from kinesthesia due to a football injury on his first day of play in the NFL, remembered playing against Melvin Mars while a student. Decker’s head injury gave him the ability to remember everything he ever experienced. There were many parallels between Decker’s life and Melvin’s life. Both had been accused of murdering members of their family. The case of Melvin Mars intrigued him. He decided that it was the case the team should investigate first, even though it wasn’t on their list of possible investigations. He convinced the others, and what began as an FBI investigation into Melvin’s death sentence turned into a multi-layered plot embracing racism very well, without getting political or taking sides, but which highlighted what it was like during the sixties with the protests and marches of the civil rights era. There were many unanswered questions and secrets revealed as the inquiry proceeded.
While the murder mystery in the novel unraveled, new issues were raised. Mars was asked to try and remember anything from two decades ago that might help to explain why he would have been framed for the murder, but his memory was not like Decker’s and he had few memories that seemed to be of consequence. Theories were developed and strategies plotted out, some that seemed very plausible, but none worked out. Decker refused to give up even when the investigation was halted for what seemed to be political reasons. He had become the unauthorized leader of the investigation, and the others looked to him for guidance. Even though all the evidence consistently pointed to Mars, Decker’s gut feelings continued to tell him that Melvin was innocent, so they continued their search for the real killer. Melvin, for his part, was reluctant to trust the team of investigators. How did he know that the FBI was not trying to trick him into giving up some piece of information which would condemn him further, guaranteeing his execution? His experiences with law enforcement and the legal system had not been positive. However, as the agents faced danger and still pursued their inquiries, he began to trust them. He also wanted to know why anyone would want to murder his parents. Still, the conundrum remained. Why would someone suddenly come forward a score of years later to confess to a crime? Having kept the secret for 20 years seemed like a plausible enough reason to continue keeping it.
The investigation was thorough as all possible evidence and motives were examined. It proceeded in fits and starts and the plot sometimes seemed convoluted, but it remained plausible at the same time. The novel was tightly written without silly romance, gratuitous sex or unnecessary graphic violence. Occasionally, the dialogue between characters became trite, but in general, it was necessary drivel to redirect the plot as it meandered and misdirected the reader.
Will justice finally be done in the end? Will Mars be freed or condemned again?