While staying in a motel on the island of Anna Maria in Florida, graduate writing student Cutter Wood witnesses the search for a missing woman, who happens to be one of the motel’s owners, as it begins to ramp up and intensify. Fascinated by the mystery, as I think many would be, he fixates on the woman, a German citizen named Sabine Musil-Buehler.
Sabine’s husband Tom ran the motel with her and despite their estrangement at the time of her disappearance, they still shared a house and their business, so he became a suspect. The second suspect was her boyfriend, Bill Cumber, who worked at the motel until he was sent to prison on an arson charge – suspicious considering part of the motel was later set on fire.
This was a book that didn’t know what it wanted to be. Wood admits as much during a meeting with a local journalist who asks him what his angle is in investigating and writing about the case, and he admits he doesn’t have one. The angle that seemed to develop, through getting more deeply involved with one of the suspects in Sabine’s disappearance and murder, combined with some navel-gazing and entry into what seems to be his first serious relationship, is a lengthy meditation on love and partnership, including where those things can go wrong.
It’s also a case of a nonfiction writer inserting themselves into a story to the detriment of that story. Or it’s a bait and switch – interested in the true crime element, morbidly drawn to a missing person case, the reader instead gets a graduate student’s melodramatic, overly descriptive account of his banal love life, his rekindling of a friendship and subsequent romance with a childhood friend, and his obsessive and seemingly misguided research into fires while trying to understand what transpired in that Florida motel.
It’s an odd book, to say the least. The author is a talented, polished writer – that’s clear, but the book was a mishmash of topics that didn’t belong together, despite his dedicated attempts to tie them all up with some relevant connection. And despite the obvious strength of his writing, it sometimes still reads like unedited creative freeform. He’s well read, especially in classics, and that comes across strongly, but the mix of academia and literature reads elitist in some places, other places it’s overwritten into nonsense. Not to mention that it’s missing the crucial element of deeper journalistic investigation that would make a great work of narrative true crime.
A large portion of the second half is his fictionalized account of the relationship between Sabine and Bill, her boyfriend and suspect in her murder. I skimmed this section because it wasn’t true, there isn’t an overwhelming amount of evidence for it transpiring this way, and the author didn’t get much access to what evidence there was, it seems.
Plus it had imagined dialogue like this, from the blue-collar Bill to the more refined Sabine: “I never hung out with a woman of quality, you know.” This is modern Florida, not an 18th century novel about star-crossed lovers with a class conflict. Not to mention the creative license taken in re-imagining sensitive events. It doesn’t belong in nonfiction. This could’ve been a fictionalized account of the relationship and crime that captured his imagination, or it could’ve been a memoir, but both parts mashed together are weak. The memoir elements make up the bulk, and they’re not compelling enough to drive a book.
An embellished commentary runs throughout the crime reportage, so I couldn’t even say that this portion stands alone as an interesting read. I’m all for the genre of true crime that’s more creative and literary than shock-sensational or fact-reciting, but this isn’t literary in a meaningful way. It was not a lovely surname, he writes of Tom Buehler’s name before Sabine adds it to hers. Sabine is German, and Buehler is a German surname. Why would she be bothered by it? Did she SAY she was? We don’t see evidence of that. (Side note: having lived in the Germanic countries, I can assure you it’s nowhere near the ugliest German surname. What would he make of Gruber? Rauchegger? Finkenwerder? I could list these all day.) And why am I reading this? What does it add?
It’s one of many examples of projecting personal opinions and perceptions onto someone without evidence that they shared them, or were affected by the same things that affect and impress upon him. There is a thread throughout, which I suspect was meant as the overarching concept of the book, of truth and what it means to different people, how it can be perceived unevenly, how sometimes the fiction is more powerful than the truth anyway, etc. But it’s hard to feel invested in any message or lesson from this when a narrative is lacking and the memoir element is purple prosed into oblivion.
All that said – he does have talent, it comes through strongly sometimes. Maybe if he could just separate what he sees of himself in a story and the truth, whatever that may be, of the story itself. Or write about a subject with enough available information (that’s not entirely his fault – plenty of people in criminal investigations are going to be tight-lipped, in certain cases there just aren’t enough facts available to write a book-length narrative.) Although even here I’m suspicious, because detectives gave him plenty of information that wasn’t public, thanks to his prison correspondence relationship of sorts with Bill.
I’m beginning to think there’s a rule that should be followed when a writer decides to make themselves or their personal story part of a larger history or narrative – ask: is my story as interesting as or more interesting than the one I’m trying to tell? If the answer is no, or not really, or even unsure – don’t incorporate that personal story.
1/5 (I have no explanation for why I finished reading it, actually.)
Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime
by Cutter Wood
published April 17, 2018 by Algonquin Books
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.