Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Restitution by Lee Vance








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Lee Vance’s debut novel, Restitution, is a fast-paced thriller with a complicated plot, complex characters, and motifs like that of the title that hold together throughout the book. Many of the characters act out of faithfulness to someone else, and by the end of the novel, readers will be impressed by the ways in which Vance has created characters that are consistent and credible. Protagonist Peter Tyler’s wife, Jenna, is murdered, and Peter is the prime suspect. Peter rushes over 300 pages to find the murderer. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 4, pp. 24-29:


A small group of reporters and photographers are working the front entrance of the church from a police-barricaded sec­tion of the street, and a television van is setting up in a driveway oppo­site. Jenna’s murder got a lot of local coverage in our quiet corner of Westchester, but I’m unhappily surprised to see how much press has traveled to New Jersey for her funeral. Maybe Rommy’s leaked his sus­picions of me—the media always love a Wall Street defendant.

Shutters click as I approach, and a man with plastic credentials hanging around his neck rushes me from the side, microphone extended as he calls my name. A uniformed cop snarls at him, saying the press aren’t allowed on church property. Ignoring them all, I follow Tigger through the heavy wooden doorway into a dim vestibule. Jenna was confirmed in this church, and she and I were married here sixteen years ago. The organ groans as I retrace her steps down the aisle, mourners rubbernecking. I concentrate on Tigger’s back, keeping my face as impassive as possible.

Tigger hesitates as we approach the altar and then glances back. Both front pews are empty, Jenna’s parents nowhere to be seen. I give a tiny shrug and tip my head to the right, uncertain as to protocol. Mary planned the service, well aware her daughter’s religiosity had never rubbed off on me. A polished mahogany coffin looms in my view as Tigger steps to the side, an abrupt vision of Jenna’s broken body within making me flinch. I’ve been having nightmares, dreaming Jenna’s corpse lay in bed with me, and knowing with a dreamer’s certainty that my love could resurrect her. Night after night I gather her cold limbs to mine, clear blood-matted hair from her face, and breath life desperately between her waxen lips. Time and again her lungs empty lifelessly, each chill exhalation finding me wanting.

Heart pounding, I edge into the pew after Tigger and lift a program from the seat. The words swim into focus as my breathing slows. Jenna’s name is printed on the cover, and beneath it the same claptrap I learned to mumble as a child, save that the kingdom and the power and the glory are omitted. More puzzling than Jenna’s faith was her fidelity to a church whose teachings so frequently infuriated her. Her insistence on a Catholic wedding ceremony condemned me to half a dozen basic religion classes and a solemn oath to raise our children in the “One True Church.” Jenna found ways to compensate me for the pain of the educational sessions, but, despite our best efforts, we never had any kids to raise. Would it be better or worse to have a child of ours with me now? Better and worse maybe.

Father Winowski, Jenna’s parish priest, emerges from the sacristy clad in black-and-gold liturgical robes. I’m glad he’s saying the service; Jenna was fond of him. They used to trade book suggestions, and Jenna stopped by his rectory every couple of weeks to cook Polish dishes from his grandmother’s recipes. A plump man with fussy manners, he had dinner at our house a handful of times, drinking neat vodka before, during, and after the meal, and giggling nervously as Jenna took him to task for Vatican lunacies such as the prohibition of condoms. He looks distressed today, eyes red-rimmed and shining with emotion. My heart warms to him for his grief.

“Peter,” he says, approaching me. “I need a word.”

“Of course,” I reply, puzzled. Tigger starts to rise with me, but I put a hand on his shoulder.

Father Winowski leads me to the altar boys’ vestiary, where a couple of black-cassocked teenagers are playing cards. He chases them out and closes the door.

“I’d like to take a moment to pray for guidance,” he says, voice breaking. “You might want to pray also.”

He bows his head and I follow suit, acutely uncomfortable as he murmurs to himself. Thirty seconds pass. He looks up.

“I have some things to tell you,” he says, hands knitted together nervously. “I don’t know if I’ve done right or wrong. I haven’t been able to talk to my confessor yet.”

“Please,” I say, his demeanor unsettling.

“You know the church has had a lot of trouble with the civil authori­ties in the past few years. The bishop has us all on eggshells. None of us wants any more attention from the police.”

“Tell me what happened,” I say, my mouth dry.

“Detective Rommy and his partner came to see me yesterday after­noon, at my rectory. He asked if I’d been counseling Jenna and I said no, not in any formal way, and told him that we usually talked about books. Then he asked if it were fair to characterize the time I spent with her as social, and I said yes, that she and I were friends. And then he asked if she’d spoken to me about her relationship with you. I said I couldn’t talk about that.”

A tear skips down his pudgy cheek.

“What did Rommy say?” I ask, although I’ve already figured it out.

“He said I couldn’t refuse to answer, that I’d already admitted we didn’t have a privileged relationship, and that unless I were prepared to swear she’d never talked to me about you outside of the confessional, he’d arrest me for obstruction of justice. He said he’d call the local news­paper and get them to send a photographer over, and then take me out the front door of the rectory in handcuffs. I didn’t know what to do.”

He rocks back and forth in his distress, clasped hands pressed to his mouth. Some corner of my brain admires Rommy’s ingenuity even as I resolve to hurt him.

“What did you tell him?” I ask, hoping Jenna kept to generalities.

He bows his head again, staring at my shirtfront.

“Jenna came over to cook a week and a half ago. We were playing Chinese checkers and talking after dinner. She said she’d asked you to leave.


“And that she was struggling,” he whispers. “She was considering a divorce.”

I slump back against a wardrobe, feeling devastated despite my lack of surprise. It seems impossible that Jenna and I ended like this. The thought of Rommy gloating over Winowski’s disclosures is a crowning blow.

“I loved her,” I say bitterly. “Whatever problems we had aren’t important now. She would have wanted you to keep your mouth shut. This is only going to make things worse for her parents. I thought you were her friend.”

His mouth works silently for a second, fresh tears starting.

“I loved her, too,” he says.

“You loved her kielbasa,” I snap, his moist, moonish face infuriating me. “It’s not really the same thing.”

He draws himself up stiffly, as if I’d slapped him.

“You’re the one who was seeing another woman.”

So Jenna told him. It’s my turn to drop my eyes, rage giving way instantaneously to shame.

“You told Rommy I cheated?” I ask a few moments later, looking up to confirm my worst expectation.

He nods, stern-faced.

“Did Jenna tell you the other woman’s name?”

I rub my forehead, a trickle of sweat running down my collar. This is going to be awful. Fucking Rommy. I stand up straight, pulling myself together.

“Okay,” I say. “It’s probably best that the O’Briens hear about this from me. I don’t want to burden them any more today, but first thing tomorrow, I’ll pay them a visit to apologize and explain. I’d guess they might want to call you afterward. Anything you see fit to tell them is fine by me.”

“I don’t think you understand,” he says, sounding pained.

“Understand what?”

“The O’Briens are in the sacristy. Detective Rommy spoke to them last night. They’re very upset. They’ve asked me to tell you that they don’t want you to attend the funeral. If you insist on staying, Mrs. O’Brien says she’ll denounce you from the altar.”

I feel like I’m going to throw up.

“I’ve already emphasized to her that you have every right to be here,” Father Winowski continues. “And I’ve told her that as a repre­sentative of the church, I’ll strongly condemn any unauthorized state­ment she makes from our pulpit.”

“What did she say?”

“She asked what I thought as Jenna’s friend.” He lifts one hand and covers his Roman collar, his eyes unexpectedly glacial. “I told her Detective Rommy made some persuasive arguments, and that I sympa­thized with her position.”

A chill foreboding quivers in my chest, and it occurs to me for the first time just how damning Rommy might be able to make my sins and omissions seem. Maybe I haven’t been thinking about things clearly. I walk to the door of the vestiary and peer through a small diamond-shaped window. The church is full, with mourners fidgeting in the side aisles and the back. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jenna’s mother will do exactly what she threatened. I try to imagine getting up in front of this congregation to admit my failings but profess my love. It’s hard enough talking to Tigger. Defeated, I turn away.

“It’s up to you,” Father Winowski says. “I’m willing to speak to Mrs. O’Brien again if you want me to.”

“Thanks for nothing,” I say, anger surging through me. “But I’m leaving.”

The vestiary has an exterior door. He tips his head toward it. “Do you want me to get your friend?”

“No,” I say, determined not to slink away. “I’m going out the way I came in.”

“I’ll pray for you,” he says in a conciliatory tone, extending a hand.

“You’ve done more than enough for me already,” I reply, turning my back on him. “I wouldn’t want you to put yourself out any further.”



Tigger stares at me with a quizzical expression as I walk out of the vestiary.

“We’re leaving,” I whisper, leaning over the front of the pew.

“What?” he says, startled. “Why?”


Standing upright, I turn toward the altar and approach the casket. Laying both hands on top, I close my eyes and summon an image of Jenna, the wood cool beneath my fingers. I see her cross-legged and barefoot on the ratty couch we had in our first New York City apart­ment, the one on the outskirts of Spanish Harlem that we took when she started law school. She’s looking up at me with a smile, hair shining in a shaft of sunlight from the uncurtained window, an open news­paper in her lap. I bend from the waist and kiss the smooth lid gently. Jennifer Mary O’Brien Tyler. Good-bye.

Eyes dry, shoulders squared and tall, I walk back down the aisle, concentrating on swinging my arms normally. Tigger hustles ahead and pushes the interior doors open for me so I won’t have to break stride. Cameras flash as we step outside, the light blinding me.


Vance takes drama and parses it out in Restitution in ways that never become melodramatic, as shown in the excerpt. Even the minor characters come across as complete and genuine through realistic dialogue. Restitution is one of the best debut novels I’ve read this year, and it will please most readers, especially those who love a good thriller.


Steve Hopkins, August 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the September 2007 issue of Executive Times


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