NONFICTION

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir

By Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flatiron Books

336 pages, $26.99

This is no whodunit. Not even close.

Ricky Langley is the killer, and you learn that in the first three pages. Ricky, as he’s called throughout, is a 26-year-old convicted pedophile who kindly drew a neighborhood map to help the searchers looking for a missing 6-year-old boy in rural Louisiana. That came hours after Ricky may have molested the boy, Jeremy, then strangled him, sticking a dirty sock in the dying boy’s mouth and hiding the body in the killer’s closet, not far from the victim’s home.

He later confessed, with seemingly little remorse or humanity.

A horrific crime, one that outraged the local community starting in 1992 and challenged those who normally oppose the death penalty.

That’s where the author of this non-fiction book, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, enters. She’s a Harvard Law student who goes to Louisiana for a summer internship, to use her brain and tenacity to fight hard against the death penalty.

But she gets hooked by the Ricky Langley story, ultimately studying every fact and available document in this sad tale, obsessively examining what drove Ricky to his crime.

Why? Because Marzano-Lesnevich finds an incredibly strong attachment to what happened to the little boy:

A close relative of hers had been a pedophile who left emotional scars on his victims.

This is a haunting book, and not just because molesting and murder are so awful. This is no quick page-turner; in fact, it’s easy to put down, sometimes after a few pages. Still, the superb writing and story-telling keep luring you back. Marzano-Lesnevich writes with a beautifully deft one-two-three punch of grace, power and raw emotion.

Marzano-Lesnevich never hammers us over the head. Instead, she uses her gifted writing talent, including subtlety, to get inside our heads, to paint her own troubling canvasses.

One example: The second night after the killing, with young Jeremy still missing, Ricky visits his own parents in their run-down trailer. His mother, knowing his history of molesting, asks whether he had anything to do with the missing boy. Ricky replies with an apparently unconvincing “No.”

“The silence she falls into then, is it the sweet and grateful silence of belief?” the author writes. “Or is it as black and treacherous as the night now falling outside the trailer door, cloaking the end of the second day of the search in failure and cloaking the dark wet woods and their absence of a body? Does the silence hide as much as the darkness does?”

There are no easy answers. Just a lot of tough questions.

The book’s chapter sequence might put off some readers. Each succeeding chapter moves back and forth in time and space, from Louisiana in 1992 to the author’s growing up in New Jersey in the 1980s, back to Louisiana in 1992 and 1964, and so on. In that way, this book follows the increasingly popular story-writing tactic of moving in both directions from generation to generation, the method that fuels the current NBC hit show, “This Is Us.”

A key question here is how responsible Ricky was for his actions, whether he deserved the death penalty. Everyone, including the author, brings his or her perspective and life story to that question.

So will the reader.

Marzano-Lesnevich, so different from Ricky in virtually every way, finds some commonality in their lives, including family tragedies in their childhoods and their families’ inability to talk about those dark moments.

The writing is almost poetic. This book reviewer, who likes to put a pencil mark and the letters “wr” (for writing) alongside well-crafted phrases or sentences, gives up about one third of the way through the book. There simply are too many.

A few examples:

--- Past our house the road dips into another town, one with crime [our town] lacks and schools statistics we whisper like warnings.”

--- “... the parade of the unlucky and unwise that make up any small-town lawyer’s work.

--- “[Ricky’s] brown eyes that were the last Jeremy saw.”

Marzano-Lesnevich performs plenty of reporting gymnastics here. She latched onto this story after almost all of it had played out, in rural Louisiana and its courtrooms. So she exhaustively combed through all court testimony and other public records. The author has to speculate about certain conversations and interactions she never saw or heard. Some facts she just can’t know.

But she never loses her writer’s touch.

The author, for example, can’t prove whether Jeremy was molested before he died. At one point, Ricky stuffs the khakis he wore during the killing into the bottom of a washing machine. Then he pours the detergent on the pants. “They may, or may not, have semen on them. At least until the water hits them.”

This book reads like a compelling novel, but Marzano-Lesnevich has taken great pains to tell the real-life story accurately, complete with nuances. That’s why it could be studied in an advanced creative-writing class.

But any reader hoping to put a bow around this book on the last page, to fill in all the gaps, to answer all the troubling questions, won’t be satisfied.

This tale will gnaw at your soul, for days or weeks afterwards.

Gene Warner is a former longtime News reporter

Click here to see the comments. Add yours now!