By Phil Mann

The publisher of David Feeney’s debut novel is a vanity press that notes on its Web site that it does not edit manuscripts. That fact is painfully apparent in A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET, the first of a planned series. It is hardly unheard of to find typographical or other errors in published books, but the problem here is that the errors in A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET are often glaring and detract from the story. For example:

“A viscous [sic] rumor created to discredit your Catholic upbringing.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “You did go to Catholic school didn’t you, Connor?”


“Were you an alter-boy?” [sic]

Errors are an inevitable, perhaps even tautological part of the human condition. But were they desirable, editors would not have jobs, and surely A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET would have been better for an editor’s touch - unless wondering whether an “alter-boy” is some sort of pre-op transsexual is an inherent part of the novel.

I have foregrounded the sloppy editing because it matters and is so prevalent. Certainly, good writing can call attention to itself. And good writing can be almost invisible, allowing the story to dominate. The writing in A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET does neither and instead is far too often intrusively bizarre.

The story, when it dominates, involves the mummified remains of a woman, which are discovered when a construction crew demolishes a wall in an old San Francisco building. Former Chief Medical Examiner Declan Connor, now working as a professor and part-time private investigator, is hired by the city to assist in the investigation. His investigations soon implicate three prominent San Franciscans: a judge, a billionaire philanthropist, and a leader in the anti-abortion movement. As the investigation proceeds, Connor finds his life threatened and his inquiries increasingly meeting with official objections.

Feeney’s Web site indicates that A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET is an attempt at the sort of novel Feeney could not find in bookstores. “Tired of novels lacking intrigue, suspense, and genuine reading pleasure, I set about to write something that I'd like to read. Something unpredictable with an ending you would never anticipate.” One could, of course, point out that there are scores of novels that would provide Feeney with the intrigue, suspense, and genuine reading pleasure he sought. The salient question here, however, is whether Feeney has achieved his goal. In many ways, he has succeeded at parts of his stated goal. Connor’s involvement in the investigation, for example, seems entirely natural. As a former Chief Medical Examiner, Connor has a perfectly good reason to be so intimately involved in the investigation. He has both experience and credentials to his credit (unlike, say, too many cozy mysteries, in which the protagonist’s involvement seems to lack any credibility). There can be little doubt, either, that the investigation propels the novel, albeit with slight and somewhat donnish or didactic ruminations on Feng Shui or cigar brands. Aside from those excursions into superfluity, A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET moves at a rapid pace, and Feeney writes credibly about the mummification process and the autopsy procedures.

The most serious impediment to the investigation comes in the form of a subplot regarding Connor and one of his students. A sexual encounter ends up causing problems for Connor, and, rather than address directly the serious implications of a professor-student tryst, Feeney lets the results of that relationship become an oft-mentioned but not seriously considered impediment, both to Connor’s investigation and the novel itself. One of the most peculiar aspects of A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET is its inclusion of a locked-room murder, that fixture more of detective fiction than of reality in which a person is found murdered inside a room locked from the inside. Entire novels - and even, in the case of John Dickson Carr, almost a life’s work - have been built around such crimes. Feeney, however, chooses a novel way to dispense with the solution. He ignores it. The killer is caught but refuses to divulge the solution to the crime, which nobody else seems to investigate seriously. A critical question thus arises: Why make the murder a locked-room crime at all? Feeney piques the puzzle lover’s interest but then pulls back the puzzle as if to say, “Just kidding.”

A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET reads like an unpolished first draft. There are sections in which the writing is compelling and the investigation fascinating. But there are too many missteps, from the section quoted above to variant spellings of “discreet” and “peak” (which occurs with the same spelling whether the proper word is “peek,” “peak,” or “pique”). Just as listening to a masterful composition suffers when the performer hits a clunker, so, too, does the reading of this novel suffer from these missteps. (Granted, there are performers of such consummate skill as to make even the missed notes euphonic, but Feeney is not a writer of that caliber.) A word about the ending is in order. Feeney has clearly endeavored to make the ending a wow-I-never-saw-that-coming ending. To the extent that the reader is surprised, Feeney succeeds, but he does so primarily by withholding significant clues, thus making it nearly impossible for the reader to figure out the ending. What hypes as “the best kept secret in the literary world” is in reality little more than a twist without setup. A SKELETON IN THE CLOSET shows undeniable promise, but its release is premature, and the novel’s fine points are marred by their juxtaposition with too many errors.