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Internal Combustion: The Story of a Marriage and a Murder in the Motor City Paperback – February 4, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Maynard serves up an examination of murder among the middle class. The setting is a gated community in a suburb outside Detroit. On Mother's Day in 2004, Nancy Seaman, the wife of a successful auto-industry engineer, herself an award-winning fourth-grade teacher, bought a hatchet at Home Depot. Three days later, her husband's mutilated body was found in the back of the family's Ford. There is no mystery as to who committed the crime. The mystery revolves around Nancy's defense, which was based on battered-woman syndrome. Although the basic plot is gripping, Maynard spends far too much time tracing the backgrounds of both families. It is also problematic that, although Maynard was unable to attend the trial, her account centers on the proceedings and the testimony delivered there; the result is not as compelling as it might have been. Still, Maynard's portrayal of battered-woman syndrome is thought-provoking, reinforcing her theme that we never know what is behind the walls of even seemingly respectable homes. Expect some media attention, but, finally, this material might have been better suited as a magazine article. Connie Fletcher
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Novelist Maynard (The Cloud Chamber, 2005, etc.) examines a real-life murder for the nasty truths it reveals about a family of four torn apart by its pursuit of the American dream. In 2004, respected fourth-grade teacher Nancy Seaman picked up a hatchet and killed her hus-band, semi-retired automobile engineer and executive Bob. Was it self-defense or premeditation? Only Nancy knows; she's serving a life sentence in a Michigan jail. Maynard, no stranger to stories of corruption born of ambition (To Die For, 1992), takes on a tale that offers few conclusions but a host of intriguing questions. The central one: Where does happiness lie? Bob was a man who liked his Detroit Tigers season tickets and working on his vintage Mustangs; Nancy was a polished, proud woman who carefully tended her ideal life in Farmington Hills, a tony suburb of Detroit. They and their two sons, one favoring their mother and the other their father, made up an unhappy clan caught between keeping up appearances and having loving relationships. Maynard devotes the first half of her book to tracking down the Seamans' extended family, locating the roots of their marital problems and detailing the opinions and reactions of friends, coworkers and neighbors. Noting that her work falls under the ethical shadow cast by not just Truman Capote's In Cold Blood but the 2005 film Capote, she drops her detachment and becomes a presence in the story. She resists choosing sides about who was the real victim, Bob or Nancy. At times, she openly admits struggling with her feelings about her own family's dysfunction and divorce. In the end, Maynard finds enough common ground with the Seamans to portray a family broken, but one morefamiliar than strange. Painful, intimate and blood-spattered: a gripping true-crime tale. ("Kirkus," August 1, 2006) INTERNAL COMBUSTION is an engrossing tale of a troubled marriage, a dysfunctional family and a horrible act of violence. It is thoroughly readable and just scary enough for a good winter's fireside read. -

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey-Bass (February 4, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470223561
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470223567
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,130,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I've been a writer all my life. Over those years, I've worked as a newspaper reporter, columnist, radio commentator (I was Liberal-of-the-Day on CBS radio at the age of 19, on a show called Spectrum) . For eight years, I published a syndicated column about my life called "Domestic Affairs", but when my life got increasingly complicated (I got divorced) and my children grew to the age where it was no longer a good idea to write about them, I ended the column and turned to writing fiction. One of my novels, To Die For, was made into a terrific movie, directed by Gus van Sant , in which I can be seen in the role of Nicole Kidman's lawyer.

My memoir, At Home in the World, published in 1998, engendered a fair amount of controversy at the time of its publication --still does, in some quarters, because I chose to write about events in my life that involved a famous and revered older author, J.D. Salinger, who had decreed that I should never speak of him. This past September a new edition of At Home in the World was brought out, with a new introduction (and for the first time, I recorded the audio book of that one.) It's a story I hope will speak to many , but particularly to women.

In recent years, I've published four more novels--The Usual Rules , The Cloud Chamber, Labor Day, The Good Daughters and my latest, After Her. (A number of my older books , including a collection of my newspaper columns and my first novel, Baby Love, are available on e-book now too), as well as a number of essays that can be found in various collections. (Read over the titles--aging, divorce, anorexia, miscarriage, disastrous midlife dating--and you may get a picture of my life, I suppose, though a number of the more cheerful aspects --more enjoyable to live through, but less good as material--would be missing.

Labor Day has been made into a film, directed by Jason Reitman , and starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. If you like the novel, I think you'll be happy with the film. I certainly am.

You can learn more about my work, and my tour schedule (also my writing workshops on Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala) on my website,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Bill Barbour on July 24, 2008
Format: Paperback
I purchased this book after hearing the author on Fresh Air. It appealed to me because I used to live in Farmington, Michigan, which is next to the city where Nancy and Bob Seaman lived. I also wondered not only why Nancy Seaman murdered her husband but why she did it so violently.

The book is a page turner. I'm usually a slow reader but I finished it quickly. The short chapters help to maintain momentum. Maynard's style also keeps the tempo going. Some of her interviews and observations do give a flavor of the people and places of the story and the Detroit area.

However, the book has fatal flaws (pardon the pun). The worst of these is Maynard's decision to insinuate herself into the story. The book becomes almost as much of an exercise in therapeutic self-exploration as a true crime story.

Maynard clearly takes sides in this story. She writes of the people she likes, such as Lisa Ortleib (now Gorcyca) and Detective Al Patterson, with near reverence. Those she doesn't like seem like cartoon characters. The same facile approach that makes the book easy to read also gives it a television-like tendency to oversimplify.

Maynard also makes abundant mistakes of fact (saying that Telegraph Road runs through Grosse Pointe, calling Dodge Magnums Plymouths, misspelling Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell's name, etc.). This made me wonder whether her sloppiness extended to pertinent parts of the story, too.

In the end, I was disappointed. This was a story that deserved to be told in all its complexity. Maynard captured some of it. However, she could have told it better if she had kept herself off of the pages and abstained from quick and easy generalization.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By writer wannabe on September 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Let me say this on the onset: I love Joyce Maynard and her writing style. Which is why when I saw this book at the airport 2 weeks ago, I jumped at it and wondered how I had not known it was out. That was 2 weeks ago. Now, 2 weeks later, I am frustrated with the obvious bias and contempt Maynard shows toward Nancy Seaman. I am not sure where this comes from: perhaps because Seaman refused to give Maynard an interview. But the book comes out completely one-sided, despite assertions time and time again by the author that she wants to be fair to all. You get the same feeling when the author speaks about Greg (bad son) vs. Jeff (good son).

I am now at the point where I am now rolling my eyes every time she makes a side comment about Nancy. The section on Nancy calling people "[...]" is actually laughable. By this point, the author is portraying Nancy as the most ungrateful, most despicable, most unreasonable woman in America. Of course, not to mention that she is also an ax murderer.

However, when you see the "support" Nancy gets from her community, the Judge, as well as the angle of the CBS 48 Hours documentary, one really has got to wonder who is really being fair and balanced.

I give the book a 3 because, even with the flaws of the book (such as Maynard now inserting herself into the story -- what is THAT about?), the writing style is still very enjoyable.

But the story itself is really really really sad.

And, I do have a side comment of my own: even though Julie Dumbleton may not have been sleeping with Bob Seaman, I truly believe she was in love with him (the kind of love a spouse has the right to wonder about); and as much as Nancy was fighting for her man, so was Julie giving back ounce for ounce. She is not an innocent naive woman one bit.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Kcorn TOP 500 REVIEWER on September 24, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Author Joyce Maynard has written a combination of true crime novel and personal confession, focusing on Nancy Seaman, a schoolteacher accused of a particularly brutal slaying of her husband, Bob, leaving two brothers adrift and alienated from each other in wake of that crime. That is the basis of this book, the pivotal event that everything else revolves around.

But ths isn't just a recounting of a terrible event but also a way for Maynard to explore marriage in general, including her own marriage, one that eventually led to divorce. She can't help but wonder what separates the pain and rage one feels when a marriage ends from the type of anger that leads to murder? While reading this book, I got the impression that investigating the crime served as a sort of catharsis for Mayhard. Think of it as "true crime marriage therapy".

Maynard also reveals some parallels between her own life and that of the Seaman family- an unhappy marriage, anger, pain, acting irrationally at times....even going so far as to admit that she may have pushed her children to try and make some painful choices. There is a lot of personal revelation and confession here.

I have mixed emotions about the usefulness of this kind of revelation in a true crime novel. Perhaps there is something universal about rage and anger, some connection between "ordinary" rage and that which goes over the edge. On the other hand, I wonder if this book wouldn't have been stronger without the personal viewpoint and comparision.

Even so, there was so much that was moving and engrossing about this book that I read it in one fell swoop, cover to cover. I just wish I knew whether it was meant to be an exploration of the crime itself or an attempt at therapy over the author's long-ended marriage. This left me feeling a bit baffled and ambivalent.
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