Steeled for Murder: A Jesse Damon Crime Novel. K.M. Rockwood. Terpsichore, An Imprint of Musa Publishing. 2012. Paper. ISBN: 978-1-61937-859-9. $7.50 (on Amazon); Ebook: ISBN: 978-1-61937-175.0 $4.99. 253 pages.
Jesse Damon, the sleuth by default in Rockwood’s mystery Steeled for Murder is one of those characters who lives in the mind long after the book is closed. I identified with Jesse early. Released from prison after serving twenty years for a charge of murder which he didn’t commit, he becomes a suspect because he works in the plant where Mitch Robinson, a forklift driver, was murdered.
Detective Belkins is obsessed because his daughter was raped, tortured, and killed, and he’s after Jesse, despite the supervisor’s testimony that Jesse had been working on a plater machine when the forklift driver was killed. Montgomery, Belkins’ partner, tries to keep him from violating procedures, but Belkins keeps turning up, often alone, to accuse and arrest.
Jesse feels lucky to have the job at Quality Steel Fabrication. He works hard to fulfill all the requirements of his job and his parole, wearing his leg monitor, checking in by phone with his parole officer if he has any schedule changes. He has little extra money, so he eats peanut butter sandwiches and drinks instant coffee. For entertainment, he gets books from the local library. He can’t belong to the union until he’s finished with his parole, and if he loses his job, he may land back in prison or if he violates any of the terms of his parole, like drinking or driving without a license. Fortunately his immediate bosses find him a good worker, and one of the other lift drivers, Kelly, is kind to him, treats him to breakfast, and tells him what she knows about Mitch, who was apparently dealing drugs. Jesse likes her a lot, but he has to be very careful, and he is.
We have an interesting reversal here. The criminal is the good guy; the cops are the bad guys. Then another terrible irony is at work. The more Jesse tries to help other people, even at the risk of being sent back to prison (he drives a very sick woman to the hospital when he has never driven before), the more his behavior is misinterpreted and suspicion mounts. I was especially touched by how he cared for the sick woman’s four children when he knew almost nothing about childcare except what he had learned in a foster home.
I found myself saying aloud, as I read, “Not again!” We get to know Jesse from the inside so well, he is so completely presented, that we not only identify with him but the suspense that we experience, as Jesse copes with all the blame falling on him for things he didn’t do, is so integral to his character and situation that it never feels like calculated suspense. We never disbelieve the likelihood of these things happening to Jesse, and we long for him to find affection and the trust of other adults. The children trust him, in another irony.
This, to me, is not only extremely skilled writing but beyond that, K.M. Rockwood has such a depth of understanding of another human being’s feelings that you can be inside Jesse’s skin, wishing, hungering, but making yourself stay under control to keep out of prison, then turning around to risk prison by helping other people.
This is a supremely moral book. It also points to the many flaws in our justice and legal systems, which can lock away an innocent sixteen-year-old, and then make it so hard for him to survive as a normal person in the outside world. Rockwood would have been a welcome addition to the “social issues” panel at the Malice convention. She knows whereof she speaks, and she speaks eloquently.
KM Rockwood draws on a varied background for stories, among them working as a laborer in a steel fabrication plant, operating glass melters and related equipment in a fiberglass manufacturing facility, and supervising an inmate work crew in a large medium security state prison. These jobs, as well as work as a special education teacher in an alternative high school and a GED teacher in county detention facilities, provide most of the background for her novels and short stories. She is one of the bloggers on writerswhokill.blogspot.com