Before Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich begins a summer job at a law firm in Louisiana, working on the retrial defence of death-row convicted murderer and child molester, Ricky Langley, she thinks her position is clear. The child of two lawyers, she is staunchly anti death penalty. But the moment Ricky’s face flashes on the screen as she reviews old tapes, the moment she hears him speak of his crimes, she is overcome with the feeling of wanting him to die. Shocked by her reaction, she digs deeper and deeper into the case, realizing that despite their vastly different circumstances, something in his story is unsettlingly, uncannily familiar.
Crime, even the darkest and most unspeakable acts, can happen to any one of us, and as Alexandria pores over the facts of the murder, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of Ricky’s childhood. And by examining minute details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, to reckon with how her own past colours her view of his crime.
As enthralling as true-crime classics such as In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and broadcast phenomena such as The Keepers, Making a Murderer and Serial, The Fact of a Body is a groundbreaking, heart-stopping investigation into how the law is personal, composed of individual stories and proof that arriving at the truth is more complicated, and powerful, than we could ever imagine.
I had requested to read an ARC of this book after reading brilliant reviews from fellow bloggers and having an urge to know more. Of course, once recieved it did sit on my shelf for a while but when I found out that the author Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was going to be speaking at the Edinburgh Book Festival it got bumped up pretty quickly.
The Fact of a Body for me was a unique reading experience, it is at the same time a true crime novel and a memoir but it doesn’t wholly feel like a non-fiction book, it has this wonderfully effortless storytelling style, that pulled me in in a way that I have only really experienced with fiction before.
The parts of the story dealing with the crime are presented in such a way that means that you know that it isn’t exactly what happened, rather a possibility of what happened. So even though she didn’t know exactly how every detail of every moment played out, the way she described the characters feelings and the events makes it so much more easier to empathise with the turns the story takes. The reader is also given a few scenarios as the blanks are filled in as best they can be.
I really appreciated the dual narrative in this book, the story of the murder is told but is interspersed with what this encounter dug up for the author, the abuse she suffered in her childhood and what impact this had on her life, whilst also asking the question what shapes the person we become. It also allowed for a reprieve of sorts from hearing about the abuse and the details of the case, hearing about her researching and in school broke up the heavier aspects of the book.
The reader is never presented with the details framed in a gruesome way or using shock tactics to highlight how terrible it is, Ms Marzano-Lesnevich gives the facts as they are on record with great sensitivity, but knowing that it is fact is, I think, what makes it so difficult to take in. I also think that by being able to draw from her own experiences helps in a way to explain why certain events may have played out the way they did.
I knew it wasn’t going to be a fast paced book going in however there were points that I felt were a little dragged out. When I first write my notes on this book I thought it was due to the sometimes clunky phrasing or that some of it was a bit repetitive. This is where being lucky enough to go and see Alexandria chat to Val McDermid about the book gave me some extra insights.
There is a case that gets brought up in the book that is used to explain the legal term proximate cause, which I will not be able to explain in any detail because I can’t do it justice, but is essentially if there are many factors in causing something to happen what is the one factor (the proximate cause) it can be attributed to. The repetition in the book was to show how you find different meanings in each of the different causes.
I hope that makes sense, it might not until you read the book, but it really helped me to understand more.
Another thing that I had wondered was that why after having done so much research on the murder, Ricky’s backstory and the subsequent trials that she hadn’t reached out to speak to the people involved. She said that she didn’t want to interview them because she wanted to tell the story of a mind coming to the information and piecing the past together, and when she puts it in that context I think it was definitely the right choice.
The Fact Of A Body is a book I won’t forget in a hurry, it isn’t about what happened because you go into it already knowing who did it, it’s the question of why that draws you in. This book gets you to think about what makes up a person and how our own stories influence what we perceive around us. It’s not always an easy read but it is a compelling one.
Content warning: child molestation, murder, tragic accidents