Crime Without Villains

Review of Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch


My older brother likes to spout a theory that the hippies were correct about everything. I don’t particularly subscribe. However, I will admit that long-haired, herb-smoking mob did create incredibly nifty slogans. Such as: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

After you’ve mulled that idea for a bit, try this one on for size. What if someone wrote a crime novel that had few if any crimes? Or presented a mystery that had all its major truths laid out in plain sight?

Such a conundrum is provided to readers by the wonderfully crafted Truth Like the Sun.

A major clue that author Lynch is up to some creative play with ordinary story formulas is that he offers us two protagonists, yet no clear villain.

The first major character is Roger Morgan, a charmed and charming Seattle socialite who draws an idea for the city’s iconic Space Needle on a napkin, and then manages to get the thing built just in time for it to serve as the centerpiece for the Century 21 Exposition, aka the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Morgan, then young, is described as jug-eared, loose-limbed, bushy-haired, and is hailed as a “silver-tongued p.r. Hercules” for accomplishing this task. Ever afterward he’s known by the sobriquet, “Mr. Seattle.” In fact, he serves so well and so long as the unofficial social leader of the city that, as the 40th anniversary of the fair approaches, he decides to run for the actual position of mayor, and in this way invoke some of the can-do optimism that prevailed during his heyday.

Enter a muck-raking reporter on the prowl, one Helen Gulanos, an East Coast scrivener who has been lured West by promises of a loose leash and big play for her stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gulanos, a single mom with a hapless love life, is damaged goods. She struggles to raise her pre-schooler son, tries to justify her existence by writing hard-hitting stories, and takes only occasional refuge from stress by sawing away on a violin.

Asked to write “enterprising” stories about the anniversary of the fair, Gulanos first observes Roger Morgan at the party where he announces his candidacy. She suspects Morgan can’t possibly be as clean or as idealistic as he presents himself, decides to probe into his past and Seattle’s, and soon – as Sherlock Holmes might say – the game is afoot.

Lynch cleverly designs “Truth” with two timelines. In the first timeline, set in 1962, the young Roger Morgan is shown afloat on the flood of the energy and enthusiasm that creates the fair – made all the more poignant by the fact that the era was also haunted by the Cold War and a looming specter of nuclear holocaust. Still, the 1962 Morgan enjoys intriguing encounters with actual fair guests like a neckless Ed Sullivan, sardonic John Glenn, hip Count Basie, witty Prince Philip and profane LBJ. His best meet-up by far is with a surprisingly thoughtful and sweet-tempered Elvis.

This timeline also dips into Morgan’s shadow side, as he explores the dark dimensions of his hometown, its illicit gambling halls and dens of vice, its corrupt cops and old-boy network – the elements of any city, really, that must evolve rapidly from a raucous frontier character to a more civilized and modern one. But Morgan himself never seems guilty of anything other than strong curiosity about how things actually work.

In the modern timeline, set in 2001, the reporter Gulanos chases after tiny crumbs of information, bits of historic record, and the grumblings of Morgan’s enemies (any public figure will have them) as she tries to figure out the extent to which he participated in the city’s corrupt practices. Ultimately, she’s only able to brew a weak tea – but her editors insist on distilling it into a far stronger indictment, albeit one based on innuendo rather than verifiable fact.

The character of Gulanos’ face-to-face confrontations with Morgan and his shrewd aide, Teddy Severson, I will leave to the reader to discover – as these are some of the best scenes in the book. For a teaser, though, here is Morgan summarizing Gulanos to her face: “She gets a visceral thrill from unleashing somewhat true stories about him without once imagining what it would feel like to be stalked by herself.”

By the book’s end, a reader is left with plenty to think about. Not just images of the rain-swept Pike Place Market or the soaring Space Needle, or a remarkably well-informed tour of the city and its past… but also an insight into the difference between an almost mythic era and a modern time of greatly lowered hopes. Compared to the grand vision that inspired the building of the Needle and the Expo, Gulanos’ grubby effort to mount a threadbare expose’ stands revealed as a tawdry game of smallball.

And a dearth of dreams soon leads to the death of the dreamer.