‘Neighborhood Watch’ uses elements of true crime
Posted: Thursday, June 10, 2010 8:02 pm
By M.L. JOHNSON
Associated Press Writer
“Neighborhood Watch” (Viking, 288 pages, $25.95), by Cammie McGovern: When sleepwalker Betsy Treading found a blood stain on her nightgown days after her neighbor was murdered, she assumed her nighttime stroll had turned deadly. But after more than a decade in prison, Betsy begins to question what happened that night.
An aggressive appeals attorney is able to use new DNA tests to raise doubt about whether she was even in her neighbor’s house when the woman was bludgeoned, and Betsy is freed. But that’s where the mystery begins. If Betsy isn’t guilty, who is?
Cammie McGovern borrows elements from some of today’s top news stories for her third novel, “Neighborhood Watch.” Like real-life prisoners freed by the work of Innocence Projects in a number of states, Betsy has her conviction overturned only after DNA tests become available and cast doubt on earlier evidence. And several real-life defendants have unsuccessfully tried sleepwalking defenses like Betsy’s.
The new element McGovern offers readers with her fictional account is access to Betsy’s thought process. McGovern explores why someone would confess to a crime he or she didn’t commit, and the author looks at how they could, over time, come to believe their own guilt.
She also delves into how childhood traumas can result in suppressed memories that emerge in easily misunderstood bits and pieces.
Set in an upscale Connecticut town, ”Neighborhood Watch” also captures the sense of suburban isolation that is often married with awareness of being carefully watched by one’s neighbors. Like everyone on Juniper Lane, Betsy and her husband conform in an effort to fit in. Almost as upsetting as her wrongful conviction is Betsy’s realization that she hadn’t kept her sleepwalking and grief over multiple miscarriages hidden from her neighbors as she once believed. McGovern creates a sense that a murder conviction is, in some ways, less shameful among Betsy’s set than the gossip generated by depression, marital problems or other failures to achieve the community standard of normalcy.
The novel’s main shortcoming is the unveiling of the true killer, whose identity is predictable. The supporting characters also feel somewhat flat compared with Betsy, as if McGovern was so focused on developing her identity and thought process that she skimmed by the others.
Still, “Neighborhood Watch” is worth reading by anyone who has wondered why innocent people confess and how investigators fail to realize their mistakes. In one of McGovern’s most acute observations, Betsy reflects she might have been less likely to accept her own guilt if she hadn’t been hungry. She wanted to do what was right, but she also hoped a signed confession would get her a sandwich.
Published in The Messenger 6.10.10