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