Through the Past Darkly

What must it be like to have not only a murder in the family but an unsolved murder at that? If the victim in question was your father who died before you were old enough to have meaningful memories of him the mystery would only deepen. It’s more than a whodunit – who was the murder victim anyway?

Zachary Lazar sets out not to find his father’s killers but to understand how a nice accountant living a life of middle-class ease got tangled up with shady land deals, political corruption and organized crime. The narrative device Lazar uses is to depict his father as a character in a novel, writing about his feelings and frustrations that led him to take a walk on the Phoenix wild side that in the early 1970s consisted of selling uninhabitable land to GIs in Japan. For something that skirts the edges of the Mafia and the corruption of a former presidential candidate, the scam at the heart of Evening’s Empire is surprisingly mundane and tawdry without ever being interesting. The scam and the murder are part of a labyrinth-like enterprise that does not lend itself to dramatic storytelling. Nor are the principles, for one reason or another, available to participate via interview. So two-thirds of the way through the author shifts to the first person to continue the search. I’m happy to report that Lazar does not turn this into a true-crime-travelogue aka “what happened to me while I was writing this book.” He sticks to the story only inserting himself fleetingly but meaningfully to remind the reader of the unbearable cost of any murder.

Whether you will enjoy this book depends on whether you like Lazar’s prose style and his narrative technique. This is not a class true crime - there is no tidy ending. Lazar does his best to explain the scam at the heart of the crime without appearing to explain it (no easy task he’s set for himself) but I never felt as if I understood it well enough to explain it to anyone else. What Zachary Lazar does very well is create the atmosphere of Phoenix in the early 70s. With a few sentences Lazar not only sets the scene, he can make you feel the desert heat and the texture of the vinyl poolside chairs.

For me little touches of brilliance like that and the risks Lazar takes were enough to give this book five stars. This is a story that truly deserves the description haunting - it stays with you long after you've read the last page. This book isn’t for everyone but if you don’t mind unresolved mysteries, Evening’s Empire is essential reading.

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