A Mysterious Death and a Macabre Memoir

Book review: An Unexplained Death, by Mikita Brottman
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Author Mikita Brottman lives in the Belvedere, a historic building in Baltimore that had a long life as a hotel and now is sectioned into apartments, bars and event spaces. Brottman admits to a fascination with the morbid, as many of us have, and hotels can be a mysterious, magnetic space for types with such interests. There’s so much layered history, potential for mysteries, and often, heaps of tragedy.

Hotel tragedies are frequently in the form of suicides. Brottman covers a lot about suicide in this book – shedding light onto why hotels attract the suicidal, with some case histories tied to the Belvedere – an eerie, personality-rich building.

Human memory may be flawed, but the Belvedere has a memory of its own.

One death occurred at the Belvedere in 2006 under extremely mysterious circumstances. Before the man’s body was found, Brottman found herself drawn to his missing poster (she observes that, sadly, people have to be mesmerized by some allure of the missing person in order to care). Haunted by what happened in the building and the rabbit hole of odd circumstances around it, she begins investigating the strange case of Rey Rivera.

Rivera was a charismatic, attractive video editor, a newlywed with plans for both near and distant future and no inclination towards suicide, according to friends and family. He must’ve taken a running leap off the roof of the hotel – an unusual method, Brottman’s research shows. Things were going well in Rivera’s life, he had no history of mental illness or suicidal tendencies, and seemingly out of nowhere, in the midst of a normal day, jumped off the Belvedere’s roof (how he even got up there being one of many mysteries around this case).

The book begins ostensibly as an investigation into Rivera’s mysterious death, and includes Brottman’s researching a history of suicides at the historic property (and elsewhere, but mainly there.) I found this topic, like Brottman does, morbidly fascinating. Her writing on these story lines, of the dark history of the hotel and mostly on Rivera’s case, is excellent. The stories are well told and placed in solid historical context. The pages fly by in these parts.

But the story is frequently punctuated with psychoanalytical musings on the author’s feeling of being invisible to the world around her, replete with examples. A little bit of this would have been fine, but it’s too much without convincingly circling back around to something meaningful in terms of the case or connection to it. It also lingers on the author’s interest in the macabre and her experiences while researching and writing about the case, the building, and suicides instead of being about those things themselves.

She also uses opinion-based observations, like “I am constitutionally skeptical of statistics” but then references astrology, making me cringe. Statistics have to be taken with a grain of salt depending on their origin and specifics, sure, but astrology gets a free pass? This was another area where I felt like journalism failed here in favor of the personal. One sentence begins, “Rey, a typical Gemini…” STOP. That says absolutely nothing. Astrology is entertainment; don’t incorporate it into anything you want taken seriously. To be fair, she doesn’t use it that often or too seriously, but enough to make me incredulous when she also makes sweeping blanket statements about statistics “skepticism”.

The personal sometimes overwhelms the main story, despite some effort to tie it to the baffling mystery around Rivera’s death. There are some just plain bad lines (I have always admired the teeth of animals haunts me) and some wildly divergent segues and personal stories or observations that veer deep into unrelated, navel-gazing territory.

It’s too bad because if this had stuck more closely to Rivera’s bizarre story and her research there coupled with her presence in the undeniably eerie, mysterious, history-laden Belvedere, it could’ve been exceptional.

Rivera’s death remains “undetermined”. The circumstances are weird and weirder depending on who you ask. Brottman does excellent work in bringing so many details to the fore in a compelling narrative and weaving the story into the Belvedere’s background, some Baltimore history, and discussions of suicide and mental health in a frank, forthright way. I completely loved those parts of the book and it’s a worthwhile read for that.

But too many unrelated personal asides, odd assertions, and scattered directions derailed it. It’s still page-turning and thoughtful, with some suspenseful and thought-provoking moments. Rivera’s story is truly a puzzling one, and she dutifully covers plenty of related angles, throwing out multiple options and theories, while sensibly indicating the likeliest.

You can be an expert in ballistics or forensic psychology, but there are no experts in motiveless suicide, or impossible murder. There will never be a clean answer to why someone does something…It is only the amateur like me, with no one to answer to, who has time to be compelled by ambiguity.

I would like to see the end of the (recent?) trope of journalists inserting themselves deeply personally into crime stories. I don’t mean when they legitimately have a reason to include themselves, or when describing some peripheral experience or happenings still relevant to the case at hand. I’ve read one absolutely stellar example, and too many mediocre or terrible ones. I still think a barometer should be considering, “Is my personal story as interesting, or more so, than the story I’m reporting?” If not, focus on the story that drew you in the first place and save the personal details for a memoir, lest both the narrative and memoir aspects suffer. 3/5

An Unexplained Death:
The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere
by Mikita Brottman
published November 6, 2018 by Henry Holt & Co.

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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24 thoughts on “A Mysterious Death and a Macabre Memoir

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  1. This premise was sounding so interesting but the author officially lost me at “Rey, a typical Gemini…” WHY?!??? But more importantly, how did an editor let that line into a finished manuscript???

    And I couldn’t agree more about the journalists inserting themselves into their stories trend. If there isn’t an organic connection between the author and the material that plays an integral role in the story, don’t force one! It’s such a transparent technique to shoehorn a human interest angle in where there doesn’t need to be one.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I know, right?! Why even mention that? There’s a focus on psychology and examining personality so maybe it was considered part of that, but please. Astrology is not psychology. Despite the extensive research, it can’t really be taken seriously as a crime narrative thanks to bits like that, which just feels like another intrusion of the personal.

      It’s frustrating because the author even has a strong connection of sorts, with living in the building including when he died there. So her fascination is understandable and her proximity to the scene and understanding of the ins-and-outs of the building is perfect, but it went so far into sometimes bizarre memoir. I love “to shoehorn a human interest angle in”, so true! But it means both genre angles are left un-fleshed out. I don’t understand why editors aren’t nipping this in the bud when there’s good content around it.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. That does indeed sound frustrating! I mean, it’s kind of a given that a journalist is going to be passionate about a subject if they’re writing a whole book on it and it’s always interesting to find out where that passion comes from, but it shouldn’t detract from the main narrative. That kind of thing can be a footnote or part of the introduction if it doesn’t have a real place in the story, or if it starts to encroach on the actual research. This investigative journalism/memoir hybrid isn’t doing any favors to either genre, except in the rare cases when the balance is actually struck well.

        Liked by 3 people

  2. Why can’t true crime writers stay out of the way of the story? Maybe just investigating the case, particularly an unsolved or unusual one, breeds the obsession, which leads to the personal insertions. At least in Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me she’s overt about her personal connection just in how she titled the book. However, I was struck by how little she included about that connection in her storytelling.

    Your review, as always is so comprehensive. You’ve piqued my interest in the story, flaws and all☺️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right, obsession is a big part of it and I didn’t touch on that here, but it was certainly a factor. That’s funny that you mention Stranger Beside Me, it’s an example of her part in the story being completely necessary but as you said, she was less forthcoming than you’d expect. I got the impression that even when writing the book, at the end of it all and with Bundy already dead, it was still a difficult thing for her to process. He really was able to show her a completely different side of himself and it must’ve hit hard when the truth came out. She wrote a little about not believing it at first and sending him money in prison all along, and I had to wonder if she felt compelled to write it, considering her perspective and her beginning of a crime writing career, but still felt pained by it. Just my impression!

      Actually I still recommend this one despite the flaws, there were times it was unputdownable! It has its merits, I guess I was disappointed because it felt like a much better book was possible but the memoir intrusion got in the way.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Oh, I definitely want to read it as the bones of it are still really intriguing.

        FYI, Ann Rule originally released that book before Bundy was executed. He was in jail but with his escape history….just sayin’;) Still, I thought she used amazing restraint and, in retrospect, was journalistically appropriate.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. There is a real trend to insert oneself into a factual narrative, but I agree that it is sometimes a distraction. I was really pulled in by your review and thought this would really be for me but I’m not so sure.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Haven’t read this, but I agree – I wish this trend of authors inserting themselves into the story they’re telling would stop. It rarely adds anything (except a feeling of narcissism) and frequently detracts from the main story. And astrology? Hmm…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic review! Shame about the personal aspects of this book that distract from the story in all the wrong ways! Agree with you 100% about the astrology thing, what a weird thing to trust over stats? Sounds like a really interesting case though, I may just look it up online 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Definitely look it up, it’s eerie and odd. She does a good job covering his story though, it’s actually well worth the read for that. I just didn’t like how it seemed like the personal intruded on too many aspects of it – like the astrology thing! That’s just so unnecessary and not a helpful, insightful observation. It bugged me.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I like your discussion about the author inserting him/herself into the narrative. It made me think about the recent nonfiction pieces I’ve read. I agree with your assessment that it can be done very well, or very badly. Great thoughts!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! And that’s so funny..my grandmother’s side of the family came from Baltimore and I was born in Maryland 🙂 Maybe you’d find this one interesting though, because she does cover some ground about Baltimore and has some nice descriptions of her world and what her life is like living there. But yes, there’s a bit of a flake aspect too (well said.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Just finished this, I liked it. I did not pick up on her astrology reference, fortunately. I focused on the Belvedere which intrigues me, sounds a creepy place to live. I liked the bit where she could not find her way back to the covered over swimming pool via the steps and doorway, reminded me of a recurring dream. I found her a quirky character and quite endearing. I liked her writing style and her carefully drawn conclusions about Rey’s death. The book has been shortlisted for a CWA award. I have just started The Five (also shortlisted I think) and it’s a cracker!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Belvedere did sound so creepy! And there was something nightmarish about wandering around in it, wasn’t there. I vacillated a bit between liking her personal observations and being irritated by them, especially because Rey Rivera’s story was just so much more interesting in general and I really didn’t care about things like her pink coat and these weirdly personal details inserted at every turn. I would’ve rather it was a more researched or focused look at his story, and the suicide research she did, etc.

      Isn’t The Five fantastic!! Really one of my favorites for this year. Glad you’re liking it too!

      Liked by 1 person

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