BOOK REVIEW / Last companion of a lost soul: Spoken in darkness: Small-Town Murder and a Friendship Beyond Death by Ann Imbrie, Bloomsbury pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
THOUSANDS of writers produce crime books, and millions of readers consume them, but few of us are touched, even indirectly, by acts of criminal brutality. The American writer Ann Imbrie is an exception. One day she found herself violently shaken by the news that a childhood friend, Lee Snavely, had been tortured and murdered by a serial killer. The two girls had gone to school together in the quiet midwestern town of Bowling Green, Ohio, and for a short time in their early teens they had been 'best friends', bound together by the confidences, longings and hurts of teenage friendship.

Before long they drifted apart, the academically gifted Ann becoming a professor of English at Vassar College, while Lee evolved into the classic bad girl, a runaway, a drug addict, a prostitute, and finally the victim of an insane crime. How could this have happened? Ann Imbrie's book attempts to track down the answer, and to redeem the history of a life gone awry.

Awkwardly at first, she plays the role of detective, thumbing through court records and interviewing friends and family of the dead woman. Slowly the pieces come together. There is a stunning evocation of the American Midwest, with its mix of navety and cynicism, and of Eric Fletcher, a small-town hood and Vietnam veteran. Imbrie shows a sure sense of pace as events move inexorably towards the horrifying conclusion, though the dramatised murder scene itself, in which Imbrie 'accompanies' and consoles her lost friend, feels ill-judged, almost an act of trespass.

In the end she sees her old friend as a stranger whose existence was ruptured from the beginning by the terrible American fear of 'not fitting in'. Far worse, in her short life Lee Snavely had suffered parental abandonment and physical abuse, as well as the final virulent act of misogyny. Imbrie's painstakingly assembled clues, and her well-reasoned case against a society which in general fails to protect women from violence, add up to a tragedy that seems close to inevitable.

At this point the book turns an uncomfortable corner. Imbrie leaps from the near-Gothic sufferings of Lee Snaveley to her own grievances not only against the parochialism of Bowling Green but against her parents, who, she feels, were narrow in outlook and overly private in manner. In particular, she turns on her mother, who failed to provide her with a bra when the need arose, scolded her in front of her friends, and neglected to inform her of the pleasures to be found in erotic love.

Suffering, of course, is relative, and who is to say that a word or a look or an act of omission will not leave as brutal a scar as a blow to the face? But there is such a disproportion between Ann Imbrie's family conflicts and the cruelties inflicted on the young Lee Snavely that the unspeakable and senseless crime dramatised in Spoken in Darkness begins to look as if it is being made to represent more than it can bear.