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BOOK REVIEW

Crimes, misdemeanors in the Green Mountains

By Ed Siegel
December 22, 2008
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Who knew Vermont was such a corrupt state? Cops taking payoffs, DA's daughters setting up suspects, nurses offing patients, and just about everybody else having a grand old larcenous time.

That's the way it is in Dave Zeltserman's absorbing New England noir novel "Small Crimes," not a book you'll find on many chamber of commerce lists in the Green Mountain area, where the story is set.

Not that Zeltserman, who hails from Needham, implicates either Ben or Jerry as a murder suspect. He just very neatly has superimposed a Jim Thompson mentality on a Norman Rockwell setting. Zeltserman could have used an even stronger sense of place here, but as it is "Small Crimes" is a strong piece of work, lean and spare, but muscular where a noir novel should be, with a strong central character whom we alternately admire and despise.

That, in part, has to do with the fact that Joe Denton alternately admires and despises himself. He has just been released from prison after seven years for taking a letter opener to the district attorney, hideously scarring him for life. Denton, while a cop, had been drugging, gambling, and otherwise behaving badly, and the DA had caught him trying to destroy evidence of his wrongdoing.

Denton keeps telling himself that things are going to change, particularly with his wife and kids, who moved away from town. Where Zeltserman really excels is in showing how easy it is to stray from the straight and narrow. Denton can't quite say no to a friend with cocaine, the young woman who comes on to him at a bar, the fraudulent pension that he's offered. To make matters worse, everyone's out to get him, from the scarred DA to mobsters who think he may have burned them. Even his parents seem to be against him.

It seems the best thing he could do is move out of this small town where everybody knows everybody, but he seems bent on finding some kind of redemption. He's utterly aware of the damage he has caused, but convinced he can make things better for at least some of the people he has wronged, and save himself in the process.

At the same time, as his ex-wife correctly tells him that he's always taking the easy way out of things, "Small Crimes" is best when dealing with that push and pull of motivation. Denton seems to have a strong, moral center as he steadfastly refuses to kill a mobster whose deathbed conversion to God might implicate Denton and the local sheriff, who gives him the choice of killing either the mobster or the DA. Still, Denton isn't above making compromises to save his own skin, including how he justifies putting innocent people in harm's way.

Not everything about the book reads true. Would someone as smart as Denton is - his college board scores were astronomical - have settled for such a low-life existence, particularly someone as narcissistic as Denton? And why doesn't he petition for a change of address? Anyone can see that any chance of normalcy, never mind redemption, isn't going to happen in this town.

But then the capacity to fool ourselves isn't necessarily tied to intellect. Self-deception leads to many a crime, small or large. It may be going too far to say Joe Denton is an everyman, but Zeltserman succeeds in making him an all too recognizable flawed protagonist.

Freelance writer Ed Siegel can be reached at esiegel122@comcast.net.

SMALL CRIMES

By Dave Zeltserman

Serpent's Tail, 263 pp., $14.95

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