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Murder mysteries, both fiction and non-fiction, are generally driven by one of three questions, or by some combination thereof : (1) Who done it?; (2) How'd they do it?; and/or (3) Why'd they do it?  One of the things that makes John Taylor's The Count and the Confession so engaging is that the true-life crime at its core not only involves all three of these questions but, remarkably enough, a rarely asked fourth question : Was there even a murder?  There's certainly a body.  In 1992, Roger de la Burde--a thoroughgoing scoundrel, though he styled himself a Polish count--was found dead in his locked Powhatan County, Virginia house with a single gunshot wound to the head and the proverbial smoking gun in his hand.  To all appearances it was a case of suicide, but eventually his lover of thirteen years, Beverly Monroe, would be convicted of his murder, a verdict aided greatly by Ms Monroe's own confession that she was present when the gun fired.

Over the course of the book, as Mr. Taylor walks back the cat on this case, two elements emerge as the keys to what may well have been a miscarriage of justice.  First he explores the deplorable character of Roger de la Burde, who in addition to not actually being a count was also a serial womanizer--having left his wife for Ms Monroe and having impregnated another woman at the time of his death, among his many sexual exploits--and a dealer in bogus artworks.  He was also mired in a lawsuit with his former employer, Phillip Morris, which seems to have been a groundless attempt to extort money from them.  He was also extraordinarily manipulative.  One of the of the highlights of the book is his will, which is a model of self-absorption, judgmentalism, and how not to treat your daughters.  All of this makes him pretty entertaining to read about but it's surpassing hard to mind that he's dead, whether by his own hand or at that of another.

Meanwhile, Beverly Monroe captivates us because on the one hand she seems reasonably pulled together, well-educated, financially independent, seemingly a good mom.  But on the other, she tolerated de la Burde's shenanigans, including knowing that he was trying to have a "male heir" by just about any woman who was willing, and she made that confession.  And that's the second element that Mr. Taylor focuses on : why would beverly Monroe confess to being there when de la Burde died if she wasn't?

It is here that a sort of villain emerges, David Riley, chief investigator for the county.  Riley determined to his own satisfaction that the position in which de la Burde was lying and the way he was holding the gun indicated not suicide but murder and he settled upon Beverly Monroe as the culprit.   He then used a variety of techniques, from a lie detector test that he informed her she'd failed to commiserating about how badly de la Burde had treated her to threats about how the prosecution might portray her to an oft repeated, nearly hypnotic suggestion that, even if she didn't kill him, she must have been there when de la Burde died.  When she accepted this last scenario and made it her own, it enabled the state to portray her as a murderess once they used forensic evidence to rule out suicide.

As Mr. Taylor shows though, and as her lawyers were able to show on appeal, it seems unlikely that she was in the room at the time and there is significant reason to doubt the evidence that the state purported to show that de la Burde did not fire the shot that killed him.  In fact, Ms Monroe's appeal was eventually successful and she has been released from prison pending further appeal by the state.  However, even if we accept that she did not kill de la Burde--and the author, though he does not slip into advocacy does make it hard for us to believe anything other than that it was a suicide--in the end, we come back to the central mysteries : the count and the confession.

Towards the end of the book Mr. Taylor recounts a moment where Beverly Monroe's original attorney, Murray Janus, is reflecting on the reasons he lost at trial :

    After all these years, Janus still could not believe that Beverly had given those statements to Dave Riley.  They were tantamount to a confession.
    Why she did it was truly a mystery, second only to the mystery of how Roger de la Burde had died.

That this moment comes so late in the proceedings and that even then we join in Janus's wonderment at these two mysteries, suggests why Mr. Taylor's story works so well.  For by then we kind of know the answer to two of those classic murder mystery questions.  We know why someone would have killed de la Burde and we know how it might have been done (a jury bought it anyway).  But we still don't know who killed Roger de la Burde and we really have to doubt that anyone did.  It seems a simple case of suicide gone horribly wrong in the hands of an overzealous investigator.  And Beverly Monroe seems to have been, as she was so often and maddeningly during his life, a victim of de la Burde's misbehavior and her own malleability.   But if her continual acquiescence in that misbehavior makes her somewhat unsympathetic early on in the tale--just as it makes him wholly unsympathetic--then the grace with which she handles the conviction and the determination with which she and even more so her daughter, Katie, fight the appeal serve to redeem her.  Even if you're ambivalent about her at first, as I have to admit I was, you'll be rooting for Beverly Monroe by the end.


Grade: (A-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -The Count and the Confession | The Official Website
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of The Count and the Confession
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Falling : The Story of One Marriage by John Taylor
    -REVIEW : of Count and the Confession (Kai Maristed, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Count and the Confession (Jess Bravin,
    -REVIEW : of The Count and the Confession (Nancy Jacobsen, Rocky Mountain News)
    -REVIEW : of Falling (RICHARD A. SHWEDER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Falling (HEATHER MALLICK -- Toronto Sun)
    -BOOK LIST : 1 0ÝÝÝB E S TÝÝN O N F I C T I O N of 1999 : (#5) Falling by John Taylor (C l a r i s s aÝÝC r u z, Entertainment Weekly)

    -ESSAY : True Confessions : Two simple measures could go a long way toward ensuring that findings of criminal guilt are genuine (Margaret Talbot, The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2002)