Review by Jacob Singer
Late One Night, by Lee Martin, explores how reputations and rumors loom large in downstate Illinois. The novel focuses on the events surrounding a tragic fire that kills Della Black and three of her seven children. Heartbreak quickly turns to outrage when the fire marshal determines that the incident was no accident.
The book opens with Ronnie Black, Della’s husband, being interrogated at the police station. The law claims he has the motive and opportunity. Previously he had chopped off Della’s hair in a fit of rage, so nobody in town seems to doubt that he could kill her. But could he kill his own children? He was known for his temper, brushes with the law, and domestic disturbances. Even Ronnie could acknowledge that “they’ve got their minds made up about me.” He had left Della for a younger woman named Brandi Tate, pregnant with his child. He was “troubled in the heart and full of fight. Pissed off at his life because he couldn’t manage to hold down a job, and there were all those kids.” But he also had a sweetness that attracted Brandi, and he tried to take care of his girls.
As the book progresses the reader wrestles with the evidence in an attempt to understand the fire and whether Ronnie is capable of such an act. Martin hasn’t written a traditional whodunit, but he uses aspects of mystery and crime novels in order to create tension, emphasizing the heartbreak of the survivors—including Ronnie.
Stylistically, Martin utilizes the limited third-person point of view. He dives deep into a single character’s experience before “head-hopping” to another character. This does a few things for the reader. First, it brings the community to life. We have access to different corners of the town we wouldn’t have experienced if we were only limited to one or two characters. Second, Martin uses this to provide a rich backstory. For example, one of the most powerful scenes occurs when the surviving kids are staying with Brandi Tate. While Ronnie’s out, Angel gets into a heated discussion about how Brandi wrecked her family. Martin avoids a potentially melodramatic moment and instead creates one of the most humane scenes in the book.
Angel said, “You’re not my mother,” and Brandi admitted that she wasn’t. “No, I’m not, and I know this is all complicated for you. You’re at that age when you’re trying to figure out things about love and I know your daddy and I haven’t made that any easier for you, but trust me, Angel, I love you like you were my own. In truth, you are my own now. You and all your sisters. We don’t have any choice.”
Before the fire, Ronnie kept his worlds separate. Della and the girls existed in one sphere; Brandi existed elsewhere. From early on in the story, the reader is aware that Ronnie is breaking from his past and making his future with Brandi. But after the fire those separate worlds instantly merge. This scene is ripe with earned emotional weight. Angel is old enough to despise Brandi yet young enough to be dependent on her. Brandi knows this and tries to make it right. She says the right thing by declaring her love for Angel and her siblings. Look at how Martin uses the word “love.” Here the word is an oath. The language comes first, as a promise that actions will follow. This self-sacrifice is a defining aspect of parenthood, and one that transforms her from a homewrecker into a caring step-mother.
The ending of this book, which will not be revealed here, deals with family bonds and what parents will do for their children. At the end, it is not necessarily what happens but why it happens that emotionally moves the reader. Throughout this book we constantly see adults doing the right thing in order to protect children, but the best intentions can have negative consequences. These actions ripple through the small community. The final swells answer “why.” It’s the response to such sadness that reveals a character’s essence, and Late One Night offers a glimpse of what it means to be a parent, a guardian, and a neighbor.
Jacob Singer’s writing can be found at Electric Literature, The Collagist, and Entropy. He is currently finishing a picaresque novel inspired by corporate conspiracies, punk rock, and video games. He can be found on Twitter @jacobcsinger.