Let me begin by saying that writing a novel is a terrific achievement. I know, having written one ~ and only one. My hat is off to anyone who can complete a novel.
That said, this review is of a non-fiction work, as compelling as any novel ~ my honest opinion of Fighting the Devil: A True Story of Consuming Passion, Deadly Poison, and Murder, by Jeannie Walker, which I finished reading Wednesday.
Characters: I’m not sure “characters” is the right word, since the people Jeannie details in this first-person memoir are real people. They include herself, and her ex-husband, millionaire Jerry Sternadel, fatally poisoned with arsenic by his bookkeeper Debra Lynn Baker in an alleged plot with Sternadel’s second wife, Lou Ann, to get the millionaire’s money.
Jeannie does a good job of showing who everyone is through their actions including physical description. Here’s ex-husband Jerry, as a kid:
Jerry was a good-looking, freckle-faced kid with short, curly brown hair. He grew up in Petrolia, a small town fifteen miles outside of Wichita Falls. He participated in every sport the school offered and became the star basketball player for Petrolia. After high school, he enrolled at the local university in Wichita Falls. He was gregarious and full of ambition. He was also gutsy and strong-minded.
Every day, as if it were a ritual, a guy with curly brown hair and red sideburns would walk by my office and peck on the window. “Go to lunch with me?” In spite of the fact that I always ignored him, Jerry Sternadel continued tapping on the windowpane, asking me to go to lunch.
Jeannie introduces us to their son Sandy and daughter Becky, now both adults. Jeannie gives readers an up-close-and-personal encounter with 2nd wife Lou Ann:
“Lou Ann, I want to know where my kids are. I know you took them from school. Where are my kids?”
“You’re crazy! I don’t know where your fucking kids are. You need to talk to Jerry.”
“I will talk to Jerry,” I quickly responded. “Just tell me where Jerry is.”
“I just called him. He’s on his way right now. And so are the cops. Good-bye!” She slammed the door shut.
At that moment, the curtain on the side window inside the house was pulled aside, and I saw my daughter Becky, then only nine years old, standing at the window. She was crying, “Mommy, don’t leave. Please, Mommy, don’t leave. Mommy, please, I want to go home.”
Jeannie makes it clear from both her personal experience and documented evidence that Lou Ann and Debra are not very nice people. Their victim, Jerry, isn’t much better. Jeannie paints a convincing picture of an increasingly abusive husband, who grows so cruel that she has to divorce him:
He walked over to the bedroom dresser, opened a drawer, and pulled out a long length of nylon cord. I was becoming very frightened of my husband. I rolled off the bed and tried to run out of the bedroom.
Jerry raced over, quickly closing the bedroom door. He grabbed the ropes on my hands, pushed me backward onto the bed, and tied my hands to the bedpost with the nylon cord. I started tossing and kicking as he pulled my skirt up past my waist.
“Kick, you bitch. That’ll just make it more fun!”
Jeannie does a nice job as well with the various friends, relatives and law enforcement people involved in this remarkable account.
Plot: Again, not sure this is the right word. But Fighting the Devil details author Jeannie’s epic struggle to get justice for her murdered ex-husband in the face of what seems to be the amazingly sluggish and disinterested legal and medical systems of Clay County, Texas.
She intersperses details of Jerry’s downfall and her subsequent pursuit of the perpetrators with memories, many unpleasant, of her life with Jerry.
Even Jeannie asks herself the question — why go to so much trouble for someone who had been so cruel to her? The answer — Jerry was the father of their two children; he appeared to become more human toward Jeannie as he grew older; and perhaps the most compelling reason — no one deserves to die the agonizing death by arsenic poisoning that Jerry did.
There’s even a touch of the paranormal in this story. Jeannie recounts several of the experiences that give the book its title:
I tried turning the steering wheel but could not move it. The car was completely out of control and heading straight for the dam. I knew if I didn’t stop the car soon, I would be crashing over the spillway into the raging, icy water below. I felt something breathing down my neck from behind the driver’s seat. A cold chill shot through me. My reaction of looking into the rearview mirror was almost instantaneous. What I saw made my blood curdle. In my mirror I saw two eyes that looked like fiery red-hot coals. I knew immediately the Devil was in control of my car. The Prince of Darkness wanted to kill me and take my soul to hell if he could.
I glanced at the speedometer: ninety miles per hour and climbing.
Setting: The events of Fighting the Devil take place in Wichita Falls and Clay County, Texas. Jeannie doesn’t give much attention to the setting, and honestly, it’s not integral to recounting of what happened.
What I thought could’ve been done better: Jeannie’s narrative, while undeniably compelling, could be tightened up a bit. Wordiness and passive voice slow things down here and there.
Here’s a scene from Jerry’s funeral:
People were meandering around, but some stopped in their tracks to stare at Jerry’s widow exiting from the chauffeur-driven limousine. They continued watching as Jerry’s mother and grown children exited from another limo.
People meandered around. Some stopped and stared at Jerry’s widow exiting the chauffeur-driven limousine. They watched Jerry’s mother and grown children leave another limo.
In truth it’s not a huge difference. But over the course of an 80,000-word book, tighter, sharper more active prose make for a better reading experience.
Adverbs also contribute to wordiness and redundancy, as in:
Becky looked over at her stepmother, Lou Ann, and screamed loudly, “I’ll tell you one thing. There’s no way Daddy would poison himself.”
“Screamed” by itself is good enough. Screams, by their nature, are loud. “Screamed softly” would be an oxymoron. One reason I mention needless adverbs — I struggle with them in my own writing.
Something I thought the story never satisfactorily addressed — why did the doctors attending Jerry never question how arsenic at fatal levels came repeatedly to be in his body?
What I thought was good: Lots. First, unlike too many indie books, Fighting the Devil is free of annoying typos and grammar errors. It’s a clean read.
I liked the straight-forward way Jeannie presents the story. Her personal reminiscences are clear, and her accounts of medical and legal aspects are complete and well-documented:
Dr. Ulrich’s report said the following: “Arsenic level dramatically increased. Patient to be dialyzed today.”
Throughout the day on Monday, June 11, the nurses continued to frequently suction large amounts of bloody oral and nasal secretions from Jerry. His weight had gone up to 257.4 pounds. His breathing was labored, and at times he gasped for breath. He had facial cyanosis. His abdomen was distended and firm. There were no bowel sounds present. He had no cough reflex. His urine output was very low and muddy brown.
Tuesday, June 12, there was a red rash over Jerry’s entire body. Thick, bloody secretions oozed from his mouth and nose. He was gasping for air, even though he was on a ventilator. His blood pressure was very low. His condition was deteriorating.
Jeannie introduces us to some interesting people, like Sheriff Jake Bogard:
Jake Bogard had been sheriff for over sixteen years and had been in law enforcement for even longer than that. The rugged lawman was born on the RO Ranch near the Texas Panhandle. His dad worked in the oil field and bought a farm in Beulah. His grandfather was Dusty Rhodes from Sur, Texas. He had three sisters—Opal Roberts and Tommie Ann Gaston, both of Junction, Texas, and Barbara Kinnison of Seagraves, Texas—and a brother, Dusty, a cowboy.
In his younger days, Jake was a cowboy and worked on ranches in the panhandle. Jake was a well-built man with slightly graying brown hair, gray sideburns, and graying eyebrows. He looked like a lawman that a criminal wouldn’t want to tangle with.
Jeannie does a wonderful job of gathering all the evidence into the narrative and combining it with her personal observations. She methodically builds it all into a damning case against Debra, who the jury convicted, and Lou Ann, who the police never arrested — but who is, probably in no small part due to Jeannie’s efforts — still a suspect 20 years later.
Overall: Fighting the Devil is an amazing true account of one woman’s battle for justice. Competently presented, well-researched and documented, it’s nevertheless personal and emotional, including Jeannie’s own struggle against the darkest spiritual influences.
Jeannie has delivered a fascinating account of crime and her own dogged pursuit of the perpetrators that I’m sure anyone who reads Fighting the Devil will remember for a long time. I sure will.
Good job, Jeannie!
And for a sexy superheroine paranormal sci fi romantic adventure thriller, check out my own novel American Goddesses ~ thanks for visiting Honest Indie!