Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Covenant with Death

by Stephen Becker
Kindle Reissue Open Road Media    2016
Originally published 1964
240 pages     Literary Fiction   

I had no idea what I was getting into when I began reading the copy of A Covenant with Death, provided by the publishers, except to note that it was a reissue of a novel by a popular 20th century author, Stephen Becker. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be a profound meditation on the nature of justice and of capital punishment in the guise of a courtroom procedural.

It is summer 1923, and a small town in New Mexico is rocked by the murder of a young housewife, Louise Talbot. She lives in the same block as Ben Lewis, a 28-year-old, who has just been chosen by the governor of New Mexico to be a circuit court judge. The governor owed his life to Ben's father, and out of respect, gives the honor of a judgeship to his son, a recent law school graduate.

Of course, Louise's husband is suspected immediately of her death and is arraigned for the murder. An older circuit court judge takes the case, and Ben attends the court sessions to learn what he can about courtroom routines. However, Ben has a lot of things on his mind. He is living with his widowed mother, which for the most part goes well, but he also has a lot of romance problems that his mother keeps trying to solve. We only know the case and the trial from Ben's point of  view, and his view is clouded by his worries that he is not worthy of being a judge and his ability to dispense justice, when he is so young and untried. 

A shocking event occurs just when the older judge is going on vacation, and Ben is now faced with a life or death situation on which he must rule. As we read his actions and his musings, we see him mature into a fine judge who is able to understand the nature of justice and dispense a decision that is awe inspiring.

One reviewer says that  A Covenant with Death is "one of the finest fictional explorations of the nature of justice in the history of American literature." Others compare it to Anatomy of a Murder and To Kill a Mockingbird as an outstanding courtroom drama. On the other hand, it is much more than a courtroom drama. It is also the depiction life in a small New Mexico town, which adds greatly to the storytelling. Most tellingly, it relates a young man's journey into maturity and responsibility. That, to me, was one of the most magnificent parts of the novel—how Ben's understanding of justice matures when he is faced with dispensing life-or-death justice. 

Stephen Becker died in 1999 after a long career as an author, translator, and professor of English. He concentrated on the "moral and social complexities of law and justice. In his books, the rigidity and absoluteness of law collides with human values—especially the need for expiation, mercy and compassion." (in Gale Contemporary Authors). Frankly, I was so pleased to happen upon this book. It is definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time. A Covenant with Death is only available for download. There will be no hard copy in this reissue.

There is a movie version that was released in 1967. Many of the movie reviews, however, say that the book was much better than the movie. I think that I just want to savor the memory of this outstanding novel, and not bother my brain with an inferior movie.

The publisher has shared an excerpt of the novel. This passage sets up the initial mystery of who killed Louise Talbot.

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