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Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Review: An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman

It takes a lot for me to read a book off-season. I just finished selling the fall season and am now reading for Winter 2019. But the editor of this book made a really compelling pitch and I was already intrigued by the book before that. I figured I'd just give it a try and see. Well, I couldn't put it down.

Mikita lives in a condo in the Belvedere, which used to be the fanciest, biggest hotel in Baltimore. It was the tallest building in the city when it was built, just over 100 years ago. And it was a financial disaster right from the beginning. It went into bankruptcy before it ever opened and changed hands three times in its first 10 years. And here's something you don't know about hotels--a lot of people go to them to commit suicide. And this hotel is very near a large, prestigious mental health facility, making it perhaps even more of a draw than most.

One day she notices a missing sign on a light post while walking her dog. It's a a young, successful-looking man who was married and had a job and doesn't seem like the usual type to go missing. A few days later, his body is found in her building. He seems to have jumped/been pushed/fallen off the roof down to a much lower roof over the former swimming pool. He went through that roof into an unused office below and wasn't found for some time. Mikita watched the police officers gathering up his cell phone and flip flops from the pool roof. And as she's always been curious about crime and is a professional writer, she starts to look into this further. And what she finds is both surprising and yet not surprising. Was it suicide? Murder? An accident? Why are the police so cagey? Why is his former boss refusing to talk to anyone?

Along the way, Mikita looks into dozens of suicides (and a few possible accidents/murders) in the Belvedere over the decades. There's something about this book I can't put my finger on, but it's haunting, and there's something universal in this story even if you haven't been touched by death in this way in your life. It's also a love story to Baltimore, which she obviously loves even with its warts, in fact,partly because of them. She goes to the shady parts of town and feels badly for the poisoned rats. As a quiet but extremely thoughtful look at death and decline, she finds the human in the story that is often played off as voyeuristic gossip. I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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