Reviewed by Amy Gruzesky
Based on a true story, Zenith Man, by New York Times’ best-selling author Jennifer Haigh, captures the real essence of small town life, and how people gossip and hypothesize about situations when they don’t know the individuals and have pre-conceived notions based only on chance observations or what others tell them.
This short story opens with Harold Pardee on the day his wife Barbara Jean dies, seemingly in her sleep. Townspeople are shocked, not by his wife’s death, but by the fact that Harold even had a wife. For more than thirty years, the couple had lived on the outskirts of town, but only one other town resident had ever even seen her. And that was only one time.
Harold likes to keep to himself, and draws suspicion when he refuses to have an autopsy done to find his wife’s cause of death. The police and ambulance attendants who respond to his 9-1-1 call also mention some odd behavior and manner in which he spoke to them.
Further complicating matters is that Barbara Jean lived a completely undocumented life. She had no social security number, no driver’s license, no credit cards, no bills in her name, leading townspeople to wonder how and where Harold even met her.
After the police force an autopsy and the coroner declares the cause of death to be suffocation, Harold is charged with murder. Assigned a new public defender fresh out of law school, things don’t look good for him, and the story takes on a sense of urgency, providing some very smartly written twists and turns and an ending you won’t have expected.
This story is part mystery, part romance, and even a bit of a commentary on small town life and how preconceived notions and gossip by some can complicate things and create problems for others.