Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Wednesday, June 20, 2018: Maximum Shelf: An Unexplained Death

Maximum Shelf brought to you by Shelf Awareness - Henry Holt: An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

Henry Holt: An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

Henry Holt: An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

Henry Holt: An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere

by Mikita Brottman

Some might accuse author and professor Mikita Brottman (The Great Grisby) of being obsessed with death. But, she explains, "If my pursuits appear unhealthy to the modern eye, that is simply because they are no longer fashionable. Mine is the unhealthiness of the modern-day ascetic, the anchorite, the mortifier of the flesh. These moments I seek are my mementi mori, ritual injunctions reminding me that my own death is a little closer every day." This fascination with fatalities is what ignited a decade-long investigation into the death of Rey Rivera. A young man in the prime of his life, Rivera died under mysterious circumstances at Brottman's apartment building, the Belvedere, in Baltimore, Md. An Unexpected Death details the amateur sleuth's search into Rivera's life and death, while also delving into the psychology of suicide and the Belvedere's history of people taking their own lives.

Brottman is taking her dog for a walk when she first notices Rey Rivera's "Missing" poster. Instead of merely glancing at it, she carefully studies the paper tacked to a nearby utility pole and concludes, "I've rarely seen a 'Missing' poster for an unappealing or angry-looking person.... To grab your attention, missing people have to possess a certain allure. They have to mesmerize you." In his poster, Rivera does just that. To Brottman he looks "like an old-fashioned movie idol." Eight days after Rivera goes missing, the body of the mesmerizing man from the "Missing" poster is discovered in Brottman's building, a former grand hotel turned into apartments. The investigators have unanswered questions and though they are unable to prove so conclusively, the general consensus is death by suicide. Rivera did not live in the Belvedere or frequent it, yet police detectives recover his decomposing corpse from an area where even residents are restricted. A young newlywed, Rivera didn't show signs of depression and had both personal and professional plans in the works when he died. According to Brottman, "those who knew Rivera say the idea of suicide makes no sense at all." The unanswered questions nag at Brottman and she decides to investigate the death herself. She explains, "Like almost everyone else caught up in the case, I feel there has to be something more sinister going on.... I do not believe that I will solve the mystery of Rey Rivera's death; nonetheless, I cannot help wanting to go deeper."

As Brottman digs into Rivera's life and the circumstances of his death, more mysteries emerge: a cryptic missive some theorize is a suicide note, the strange behavior of his co-workers, veiled warnings to Brottman concerning her safety. Rivera's unfortunate demise has all the makings of a modern-day suspense novel.

An Unexplained Death has a vital element that most fiction books don't, however--bureaucracy. Fictional sleuths find perfect contacts in their address books and gain access to all the documents and information they need. Brottman is not so fortunate. "I am awkward and self-conscious, aware of my inexperience and lack of credentials. I am a literature professor and a writer, not an investigative reporter, definitely not a journalist. I have no connections, no clout, no names to drop." Brottman ping-pongs between government offices trying to obtain a police report. She waits six months after filing a Freedom of Information Act request for FBI reports, only to be granted just two pages from a large file--pages she had already accessed from the Securities and Exchanges Commission's website. She's not even allowed to know if Rivera's case is open or closed.

Fans of true crime--and those who enjoy the fictional variety--will find plenty to rivet them in An Unexplained Death. But the story also offers a lot to those who relish the psychological mysteries of mankind. Brottman looks closely at suicide, through published studies and research as well as anecdotal examples directly tied to the historic Belvedere building. Her findings are fascinating and insightful, and they add to the intrigue of Rivera's case, contrasting the figure his friends and family describe him to be.

The richest gem of An Unexplained Death, however, is Brottman herself. She opens her life to her readers as she journeys through this investigation--its highs and lows, frustrations and rewards. Brottman is candid and honest, sharing her reactions alongside evidence she recovers, personal experiences with research she conducts. Her description of the ghastly desk she uses in a family burial plot is telling, as is her choice to take home an old forgotten cardboard sign reading, "Sorry, the Reptile House Is Closed," and hang it in her bathroom.

Intriguing, mysterious and tragic, this beautiful tribute to the secrets of death from a true "connoisseur" of the subject is macabre poetry that sings. --Jen Forbus

Holt, $28, hardcover, 288p., 9781250169143, November 6, 2018

Henry Holt: An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

Mikita Brottman: A Connoisseur of Death

photo: Tedd Henn

Mikita Brottman is the author of several previous books, including The Great Grisby and The Maximum Security Book Club. She is a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art and lives in the former Belvedere hotel in Baltimore, Md. An Unexplained Death (Holt, November 6, 2018) is a work of nonfiction about a mysterious death at the Belvedere. 

You have a great interest in true crime. Was there a particular event or experience that triggered this curiosity in you?

There was no particular event or experience in my own life. I think everybody is fascinated by crime! The impulse to commit a crime is, in most cases, extreme emotion--passion, desire, lust, envy, greed, longing, desperation. Human relations are writ large in these acts. We're compelled to look hard at them in order to better understand ourselves.

You tell your readers, "I am not a gawker; I am a connoisseur." How would you define each of these distinctions?

I don't know if either impulse is distinct or discrete. That line comes at the end of a section of the book where I defend against the common assumption that "morbid curiosity" is inherently unhealthy. As I try to explain in the book, we feel uncomfortable today when someone thinks and talks about death "too much." We've lost the tradition of keeping death in mind at all times--the medieval idea of the memento mori.

Did you know right away that Ray Rivera would be the subject of a book for you? If not, what was the deciding moment?

I knew right away.

Then how did you determine the waiting period before you would try to contact his friends and family?

I tried contacting them early on and got no reply. I decided to try again a few years later, when the case had disappeared from the local media and the most immediate pain would be over.

In the book, you refer to yourself as an amateur and note that you don't have a lot of traditional research channels. How do you start an investigation in that situation?

I started by talking to other people in Baltimore who worked on the case. I also talked to people with more experience than me and got their advice--investigative journalists and so on. I had the advantage of time and no deadline, so I could keep going indefinitely.

What's something about the process of writing a book like this that you know now that you wish you would have known when you started your investigation?

One thing I wish I'd realized more fully is that if you're really curious and interested in something, most people really do want to talk to you, and are happy to open up and share with you, even if it's about a subject that might seem very difficult, like a loved one who suffered a violent death.

You went through quite an ordeal trying to obtain the police report for Rey Rivera's death.

If a police homicide investigation is still active, all files are going to be closed, so the Freedom of Information Act won't apply. This is understandable if police are still working on a case. But this case is now 12 years old, the original police investigators have retired, and there hasn't been any activity for years. In situations like this, you can't help but get the sense that the case file is being kept "active" because it was badly handled, and the police aren't being transparent.

An Unexplained Death is much more than just an investigation into Rey Rivera's mysterious death. How did you determine what content to include?

Of all the fascinating sidetracks I went down, the ones I ended up including were those that connected most clearly to the death of Rivera (although I didn't really want the book to be a traditional "true crime narrative"), such as the research I did into suicides in hotels, and in this hotel in particular.

Throughout this investigation you received warnings and people expressed fear for themselves or their families if they talked to you. Yet, you didn't feel any fear yourself.

I come back to this at various points in the book, but in short, it's because people usually don't pay much attention to me or remember me--I often experience myself as invisible. I guess I feel as though I'm not important or threatening enough.

One of the reasons people give for enjoying crime fiction is the satisfaction of answers that you point out often don't exist in reality--the whys, the motives. Do you feel any need for that resolution in true crime?

"True crime" is a genre with certain conventions of its own--it usually has a strong emphasis on the restoration of order following the moment of chaos. Police procedure plays an important part. In this sense, "true crime" is a misnomer, because in reality, chaos is the dominant force, not a transitory moment. Most crimes are not solved. When I'm writing about something that really happened, I try to show that reality. --Jen Forbus

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