Don Noble
10:31 am
Mon September 11, 2006

Blood and Circumstance

Frank Turner Hollon, a practicing attorney in Baldwin County, Alabama, has been turning out short murder-suspense novels at an incredible pace. Blood and Circumstance is his sixth of these since 1999, and he has also published a children's book, Glitter Girl and the Crazy Cheese.

Frank Turner Hollon, a practicing attorney in Baldwin County, Alabama, has been turning out short murder-suspense novels at an incredible pace. Blood and Circumstance is his sixth of these since 1999, and he has also published a children's book, Glitter Girl and the Crazy Cheese.

Hollon's books are really novellas, short enough to be read in one sitting, as Edgar Allen Poe said fiction should be, and each of his novels depends on one particular reversal or the revelation that matters are not what you had thought them to be: the client is setting up the lawyer to take the fall, or the supposed murder victim is framing her husband from beyond the grave.

Blood and Circumstance follows this pattern, but alas, with much less success than A Thin Difference or The Point of Fracture.

The given circumstances are clear enough. A psychologist comes into a small holding room to evaluate a prisoner. Dr. Andrews is to determine, to the best of his ability, whether Joel Stabler was sane at the time he shot his brother Danny in the head, in cold blood, and to further determine whether he is now sane, and can assist in his own defense.

The entire novel, 170 small pages, is the dialogue, in conversation and in written statements, that passes between the two men. Dr. Andrews does not seem to be a particularly brilliant or gifted psychologist, and Joel appears to be a sane fellow who shot Danny in a mercy killing because Danny was thoroughly insane and miserable. Joel also mentions, however, that he has "little blue balls" in his blood system and they are "filled with poison jelly like a bath bead" and when they break the poison goes to the top of your head. Now I didn't go to med school, but that was a kind of tip-off to me that Joel was not A-OK. Joel relates how his father was a mad, drunken, abusive man who beat everyone and Joel took the beatings: "every time . . . [he] . . . hit me, it was one less blow my mother took."

Joel fondly mentions his mother reading him To Kill a Mockingbird out loud, common enough. He also, however, on two separate occasions, alludes to the novel The Last Gentleman, by Walker Percy. The reader should be alerted. Percy, also an Alabamian, was a kind of genius. He had the BS from Chapel Hill, an MD from the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was a self-trained linguist and philosopher. Neither Joel, in the novel, nor Hollon, I believe, is in Percy's league.

And besides, the allusion to The Last Gentleman is a red herring. Percy in 1977 published the novel Lancelot, on which this novel seems to be silently modeled. In Lancelot, a man, Lancelot, arrested for murdering his wife is visited in his prison cell by Harry, a priest/physician. That entire novel is the conversation between them, during which they discuss the absolute or relative nature of sin, the existence of God, and the enduring power of love, for 279 pages.

There is a stunning revelation at the end of Blood and Circumstance, but I must say I don't believe it. What Dr. Andrews learns, too late, about Joel, a competent psychologist would have known much earlier. And it finally seems not to matter much, anyway.

In summary, Hollon deserves high marks for taking on a big subject. He has not added to the pile of novels about how tough it is to be a teenager or about middle-aged female bonding. Finally, though, he has bitten off a piece of philosophy too big to chew in the time allotted. But in fiction as in baseball, nobody hits a home run every time. Read his earlier books, or his next one. Hollon is a fine, smart fiction writer.

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