Death by Station Wagon

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

When Kit Deleeuw agreed to leave Wall Street to avoid being implicated in a financial scandal, he relied on his Army training as an investigator to provide a new source of income. Since setting up shop in the American Way Mall in a New Jersey suburb, he has attracted a small but steady flow of cases tracking down ex-husbands who refused to pay alimony and settling other minor matters of suburban existence.

The local police rule that the deaths of two teenagers, Ken Dale and Carol Lombardi, at a deserted estate were a murder/suicide, but friends of the teenagers refuse to believe that. They hire Deleeuw to clear Dale’s name, setting him on the biggest case of his new career. His investigation, as it counters the official police report, puts him into conflict with the local chief of police. Kit therefore is on his own in tracking down the limited clues.

Deleeuw and the police soon discover that the case resembles one that occurred a century earlier, another supposed murder/suicide involving strangulation. Various details are identical, including the type of rope used in each case. The police remain satisfied that Dale murdered his girlfriend and then killed himself, using as corroboration the fact that the couple had been working on a school report about the old crime. A manuscript concerning that crime turns up missing, adding another trail for Deleeuw to follow. Later crimes in the area muddy the investigation further, as they appear to be the work of a serial killer involved in the Dale and Lombardi deaths, of someone trying to rekindle interest in the old case, or simply of a copycat.

Katz presents the investigation from Deleeuw’s point of view, allowing him to become misdirected and to believe false clues, with occasional interjections of activities of other characters. Because of the apparently faithful description of Deleeuw’s actions, the book’s resolution comes as a disappointment. Readers discover that Deleeuw has been operating behind the scenes, uncovering clues not mentioned until the denouement and pursuing lines of thought not previously discussed. This method of narration maintains the suspense of the story and allows neat resolution of the mystery but leaves the reader feeling left out of the process of discovery.