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Mr. White's Confession: A Novel Paperback – October 29, 1999
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In Robert Clark's second novel, Mr. White's Confession, two men grope through real and metaphysical mysteries in post-depression Minnesota. A pair of girls, taxi dancers at a local dance hall, have been murdered. It seems obvious to everyone involved that the killer is Herbert White, a quiet eccentric with a taste for glamour photography--particularly after portraits of the dead women are found in his apartment. Yet police Lieutenant Wesley Horner finds himself obsessed with the oddities of the case, starting with the fact that the suspect is afflicted with a faulty memory. Literally unable to recall anything but the distant past (and intermittent patches of the present), White cannot confess to the murders. Did he in fact commit the crime, or is he merely a convenient scapegoat? Agonizing over these questions, Horner also begins to ponder the role that memory plays in understanding the past--and the present.
Part of the narrative consists of Herbert White's journal, and this is the best part of Mr. White's Confession. Here Clark creates a voice that is both innocent and formal and, most of all, blind to its own desires. Recalling a visit by Ruby Fahey, one of the eventual victims, the photographer writes: "She went back to my bedroom to change, and I must say I felt a huge sort of breathlessness at the idea that she was in my room shedding and then donning her garments, rather as if some mystery of great enormity were taking place right here in my humble quarters!" Horner's half of the narrative, alas, is weighted down by tired lyricism, and populated by a hard-boiled cast straight out of Raymond Chandler. The result is a gripping mystery with an anticlimactic ending--less a philosophical resolution than the tail of a shaggy-dog story. --Emily Hall --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
By opening with a long epigraph from St. Augustine's Confessions (in the original Latin, no less), Clark's ambitious, atmospheric rumination on good, evil and the gray area in between announces intentions far loftier than those of the standard dime-store detective novels to which the book bears an intentional but superficial resemblance. Set in St. Paul, Minn., in the bleak winter of 1939, this high-brow thriller retains enough lowdown grit and grime to qualify as both a suspenseful read and a surprisingly touching character study. When two young "dime-a-dance" girls are murdered, tough-as-nails homicide cop Lieutenant Wesley Horner hones in on eccentric recluse and amateur photographer Herbert White as the prime suspect. Looking like a cross between Humpty Dumpty and Paul Bunyan, and equally obsessed with Hollywood starlet Veronica Galvin and the voluminous scrapbooks and journals he keeps in order to compensate for his (narratively convenient) memory loss, White takes the fall with sympathetic dignity: astute readers will have fingered the real culprit many pages earlier. The true mysteries here are psychological: Horner's morally suspect relationship with teenage drifter Maggie is particularly fascinating. Having previously written a biography of James Beard (The Solace of Food), a cultural history of the Columbia River (River of the West) and a critically lauded first novel (In the Deep Midwinter), Clark here seesaws, most often successfully, between hard-boiled cliches and an earnest, self-conscious concern with the natures of memory and love. Author tour.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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MR. WHITE'S CONFESSION is a slightly different kinda animal from Clark's other two novels in that it is set mostly in the year 1939 with lots of historical and cultural references from that year, and, perhaps most significantly, it is a "crime novel." A cover blurb from Greil Marcus likens the book to "Dashiel Hammett or James Crumley - at their best." That's damn good company Mr. Clark is keeping, and I couldn't agree more. But this is so much more than just a murder mystery; it is a dual character study in the best literary tradition: of the suspected murderer, or the "Dime-a-Dance Monster," Herbert White; and the homicide detective, Wesley Horner.
Herbert White is a fascinating creation, a gentle giant kind of character, described as a tall, shambling man with a round Humpty-Dumpty head (and look) and huge hands. Orphaned at an early age, White was apparently home schooled (and well) by his devoted grandmother. There is something altogether odd, perhaps even Asperger-ian, about White, who suffers from a fractured, defective memory. So he has kept scrapbooks and Proustian journals for years to make up for this defect. His looks, however, cannot be helped. People are often afraid of him, so his life since the death of his grandmother has been a solitary one of very regular routines and habits. He has worked for years as a clerk and spends his free time with his scrapbooks and journals, going to the movies weekly, and frequenting the local dance hall and making photographic 'studies' of the girls who work there. Two of these girls turn up dead and therein lies the tale upon which the novel turns.
I spent a little time researching Robert Clark after I discovered his work and found he'd written a biography of the famous cook/chef, James Beard. I know almost nothing about Beard, but in reading a bit about him and studying some photos of him, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps there weren't a bit of Beard in Clark's character of Herbert White - certainly in the physical description, and perhaps in the sensibilities too. Because White seems at heart a gentle, lonely soul, who has studied the classics and writes in a very Victorian style, and whose sexual identity seems unformed and innocent. But whether there is anything of Beard in him, Herbert White is a totally unique fictional creation - one I will remember for a long time.
The other central character, detective Wesley Horner, is equally fascinating, if a bit more conventional. A tragic figure in that he has lost his wife to cancer and his only daughter simply disappeared, Horner finds a kind of brief salvation in a relationship with Maggie, a sixteen year-old girl he rescues from the street. Since the relationship becomes sexual, some might take issue with it (Horner is in his forties), but Clark manages to make it seem sweetly redemptive, for both parties involved, as indeed it is.
There is evil incarnate in this tale, however, make no mistake. But I'm not a spoiler, so I'll mention no names, although astute readers will have their suspicions early on. Bad things happen, to be sure, but there are some wonderfully kind and sweet things that occur here too, and even some "off stage" intimations of nearly "happily-ever-after" kinda stuff - bittersweet perhaps, but still ... The thing is this is simply a terrifically told story, with wonderful, fully developed characters and a real period feel for the mean streets of pre-war St. Paul. Clark is a master at what he does. I may have already asked this in reviewing his other books, but I'll ask it again. How come this guy is not a nationally bestselling author? Where have all the discerning readers of quality fiction gone? Ah, well ... This is a highly recommended read from a confirmed and compulsive booklover. - Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir BOOKLOVER