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Friday, October 30, 2009

review: The Strangler by William Landay

The Strangler
by William Landay

For the three Daley brothers, sons of a Boston cop, crime is the family business. They are simply on different sides of it. Joe is the eldest, a tough-talking cop whose gambling habit — fast women, slow horses — draws him into the city's gangland. Michael is the middle son; a Harvard-educated lawyer for an ambitious Attorney General, Michael finds himself assigned to the embattled Strangler task force. And Ricky, the devil-may-care youngest son, floats above the fray as a professional burglar — until the Strangler strikes too close to home.
As Joe's mob debts close in around him...and Michael becomes snarled in a murder investigation gone very wrong...and Ricky is hunted by both sides of the law...the three brothers — and the women who love them — are forced to one another's sides. Now, each must look deeper into a killer's murderous rage, into their family's own deadly secrets, and into the one death that has changed each of them forever. As William Landay's electrifying novel builds to a climax, bonds will be broken, the Strangler case will violently unravel, and two mysteries will converge and collide — until a shattering truth is revealed.

adult fiction ; mystery { genre
R for violence and sexual content { rating
January 30, 2007 { first released
Bantam paperback (496 pages) { review edition
bought at used price { acquisition ; ; IndieBound ; Book Depository { purchase links

Why I Read This
I found this book at a foreign languages bookstore in Xi'an, China while on a roadtrip with my family. It was one of the only books I found interesting, and that was mostly due to the fact that there were brothers in it. I have no resistance against stories with brother-dynamics, and the premise of this - three brothers on different sides of the law - intrigued me to no end. Suffice to say I was expecting them to turn on each other or something at first, but I am just as happy having them work together.

First Lines
Ricky Daley: In the subway: twenty swaying grief-stunned faces. A man insensible of his own leg pistoning up and down, tapping tat-tat-tat-tat-tat on the floor. At Boylston Street the track curved, the steel wheels shrieked against the rails, and the lights flickered off. Passengers let their eyes close, like a congregation beginning a silent prayer. When the lights came on again and their eyes opened, Ricky Daley was watching them.

Overall Rating

While the title and setting directly references the Boston Strangler's case, this book is more of a story set in the periphery of the fuss. It explores the brothers' varied relationships with their family, their heritage, and their jobs, as well as both mental and physical struggles and consequences they face as they become entangled in the world of serial killers and mob bosses. The subtle twists and turns impact more emotionally than thrillingly, but that's what makes this story so wonderfully character-centric.

review posted to, Book Depository, goodreads, LibraryThing, Shelfari


This story is told with two subplots that converge towards the end. One side of the story follows the mob's involvement in the redevelopment of New Boston, and how Joe and Ricky get tangled up in the mob's business. The other side of the story follows the Strangler as Michael works to find out the identity of the serial killer. As the brothers work through their troubles, their involvement brings each of the threats closer to home.
The story is told in a tsunami-like format, where it starts off with small things: Joe being sent to patrol the neighborhood later to be transformed into New Boston, Ricky stealing a bag of diamonds, Michael being suspicious of their mother's new boyfriend. And then bigger things: Joe gets involved with the mob, Ricky getting death threats from the people he stole from, Michael getting closer to the Stangler's identity, and the death of a family friend that bands the brothers together. There is always the undercurrent of a messy ending, where everyone would become targeted by one side or another. At the same time, the story explores, through the brothers' everyday lives, the discrimination against ethnic minorities, the sacrifices of redevelopment, and the sensationalism of serial killers in the media.
While not action-packed or particularly thrilling, this is an accomplished novel with invested storylines, a light mystery, and a realistic exploration of the trifles of mid-60s Boston.


The Daley brothers are not made out to be heroes or saints in any way, they are kind at heart, but flawed in execution. They share a relationship in their common blood, and even if they hold grudges against each other, they look out for one another in the end.
Joe is an aggressive hothead, degenerate gambler, and adulterous womanizer - he also rushes to the rescue of a woman being attacked and risks his life to save her. He acknowledges his lower-than-average intelligence, accepting it as a part of himself, and argues that by "sampling" other women and finding them wanting, he is strengthening his love for his wife. These traits makes him all the more real to me, breaking out of the bounds of stereotyping, giving him unique depth without exaggerating anything. Thus it is almost with resignation that the reader watches him struggle between being a cop and being in debt with the mob.
Ricky on the other hand is smart, graceful, and manipulative. He makes his living off being a master thief, something his brothers tend to look the other way about. He is also a great liar, and we see through Amy, his "girlfriend", that he seems very much emotionally stilted, to the point of recklessness. The murder in the family however, brings out the hidden side of his emotions and we see him struggle to justify his missteps and mistakes in his quest for revenge.
Michael is the more unstable and mysterious of the brothers. He has no girlfriend/wife, few friends, and often gets migraines followed by black-outs that makes him suspicious in the reader's eye. He acts as the mediator between Joe and Ricky - though he's usually on Ricky's side - and treasures his family greatly, which makes him the "leader" of the three when they are forced to work together. Michael's character is the least predictable, and many of the story's twists involve him and his actions.
Margaret, the brothers' mother, is a strong-willed woman, sometimes even frustratingly stubborn in her opinions. She is the embodiment of the boys' household, and while they want to protect her, she is loathe to show any fear. Amy on the other hand is witty and cynical, working as one of the few women in the newspaper's writing department. Her love for Ricky is unrequited but she accepts it as a facet of his character, willing to be his "play-mate" when he's willing to have her, even if that means they won't embrace or kiss.
The characters come to life through their philosophies, some complex and others simple. Minor characters are not made out to be single-cell existences, presented in a way that we believe we're only seeing a small part of their lives rather than their entire being stuffed into one sentence, then discarded.


The writing is understated and simple, but it gave me the feeling of reading a novelized screen-play at times. The POV is third person, but in a way that it is very personal to the character in focus. Descriptions are done with historical touches and present-day observations. The dialogue allows for characters with accents or slurs, and is very natural in including stutters and repeats (ex. "you know, like that"). Some parts of the novel are very dark in execution, while others are playful and uplifting. Judging from the vocabulary I'd say this is for an adult audience, but young adults should be able to enjoy it as well.


I had not expected what happened on the last 40 or so pages at all. I was very sad about the death of one of the characters, though it certainly was portrayed as unavoidable. The last scene though, made up for some of it with the friendly brotherly snark and cutely funny exchange about stealing God.
The motivations and mechanization behind most of the mysteries were resolved, though as the author said, he doesn't try to "solve" the Boston Strangler murders, so there is no real resolution to that subplot. However, the coda serves to either confirm or deny one of the suspects as the true murderer with some ambiguous evidence and even more ambiguous dialogue.

Reading Challenges
What's In a Name? Challenge 2009 → Medical Condition
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Ah Yuan said...

yoooooooooo it's moi, wingstodust. lol so I finally know the title of the book you mentioned on DW this summer!!! I'll admit, the bit about Joe reallyyyyy turns me off. But I suppose, on the flipside, I have stumbled upon books wherein the guy cheats and I don't hate him, but I've never liked a character like that either. =/ But I suppose if I was trapped somewhere with no internet and had only this book or Twilight to read, I'd consider reading it then... ^^;;;