Blame the Dead

Written by Ed Ruggero
Review by Larry Zuckerman

When the army assigns military police Lieutenant Eddie Harkins to investigate a surgeon’s murder at a field hospital outside Palermo, Sicily, in August 1943, it’s the last thing he wants. A former beat cop in Philadelphia, Harkins knows nothing about detective work, and the byzantine hospital politics daunt him. No one mourns the victim, certainly not the nurses whom he sexually molested, yet no one volunteers to help Harkins. Still, he refuses to give up, because wherever he probes, he finds evidence of corruption.

Moreover, a nurse at the hospital is a childhood friend, and he wishes to protect her. But she’s plenty resilient, and it’s her story (and her colleagues’) that lift this novel. With impressive authority, Ruggero conveys the nurses’ stoic heroism amid massive gore (be warned), and how little respect they get, including the label of whiny troublemaker should they protest the groping (or worse) that’s their daily lot.

A former officer, Ruggero has tuned the soldiers’ dialogue and interactions to perfect pitch. He’s also done his historical homework, re-creating the atmosphere and workings of a World War II field hospital, and the recently liberated, sprawling Palermo.

But though I like the setting and much of the story, Blame the Dead feels cluttered, with too many voices and plot points, not all of which I believe. The nonstop whirling propels the villain into lunacy, a tired, unsatisfying trope; and the villainy takes such elaborate turns that when one character refers to Occam’s razor, I had to wish that elegant principle had shaped the narrative. The resolution, though briskly narrated, relies on several clichés.

The first of a planned series, Blame the Dead shows promise. I hope that sequels offer less intricate, contrived stories and a better balance between plot and character.