Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Janeology by Karen Harrington
(Kunati, Inc. / 1-601-64020-X / 978-1-601-64020-8 / April 2008 / 256 pages / $24.95 hardcover / $18.21 Amazon)

Reviewed by Malcolm Campbell for PODBRAM

Jane Nelson "snaps" and tries to drown her two children in the kitchen sink. Her son Simon dies, her daughter Sarah survives, and Jane is placed in a mental institution after being found not guilty by reason of insanity. However, since society, as we saw in the Andrea Yates case and others, can neither understand nor tolerate flawed motherhood, it will go to great lengths to find extenuating circumstances to explain a mother's crime.

The stunned and grieving husband and father, Tom Nelson, becomes a convenient scapegoat. As high-profile cases in recent years have demonstrated, husbands are expected to know whether or not a wife under stress is a clear and present danger to her children. So Tom is charged with failing to protect his family from his wife, a wife he didn’t know as well as he thought he did.

In Janeology, as in life, Tom and his lawyer Dave take as a given that the evidence used in Jane's trial to demonstrate that she was insane will be brought into Tom's trial and used against him. The prosecution will argue that if Jane was crazy enough to kill her children, Tom should have noticed this fact and done something to keep Simon and Sarah out of harm's way. How could he not have known?

Tom asks himself this question many times even before he is charged. He also wonders what happened to Jane, the loving wife and mother, to bring her to such a point. In her exceptionally well-written, carefully plotted and inventive novel, Karen Harrington considers where blame begins and ends and what, if anything, will bring us closure.

Dave tells Tom that they can mount a stronger defense by going farther into the past than the psychologists who testified about Jane's mental instability at her trial. He introduces Tom to a psychic who will learn through "retrocognition" what Jane's parents and grandparents were like and whether, through bad genes, psychological imbalance, or criminal activity, they played a part in creating Jane's instability and propensity for murder. As the psychic explores Jane's family tree in a series of compelling vignettes, the initially skeptical Tom begins to see a multigenerational pattern of behavior that might help him, as well as society, answer the question "why did Jane do it?"

While these vignettes are well handled, astute readers might wonder why Tom didn't ask his lawyer two questions about the information the psychic was finding: (1) How can you present evidence in court that's been gathered solely through paranormal means? (2) Is there any legal precedent for using the "sins of the fathers," especially sins nobody knew about at the time of the crime, as viable extenuating circumstances in the same manner as one's own psychological past is traditionally used when presented by experts?

Lacking a stronger clarification from Dave about how the information will be used in court, the psychic's revelations appear, while they're unfolding in the storyline, more as compelling nice-to-know histories than viable facts for a court of law. Dave could have said, without the plot being spoiled, how he intended to get these revelations before the jury. Tom should have asked, and the reader needs to know to keep from thinking that the past, no matter how compelling it is, is unrealistic in a legal drama.

In their consideration of Jane and how she came to kill her children, Tom and Dave want to answer the question "why" with something more satisfying than "she just went nuts." Do these answers they find create reasonable doubt when weighed against the state's charge of "failure to protect"? Maybe yes, maybe no, but even if the answers clear Tom's name, will they also bring the true closure family, friends and society desire? Harrington puts these questions before the reader in a very engaging novel.

See Also: The March of Books Review
Karen Harrington's website


Dianne K. Salerni said...

Good Review, Malcolm. I've been interested in this book for a long time. I guess it's time I made the commitment to read it!

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

Ah, I hope I tempted you to pick up a copy.


Hettie said...

An exemplary, thoughtful and professional review.