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Review: Blame the Dead, by Ed Ruggero
Forge, 2020. 330 pp. $28

When the army assigns military police Lieutenant Eddie Harkins to investigate a surgeon’s murder at a field hospital outside Palermo, Sicily, in August 1943, it’s the last thing he wants. A former beat cop in Philadelphia, Harkins knows next to nothing about detective work, and the internecine warfare at the hospital threatens to overwhelm him — as if fighting the Germans didn’t cause enough trouble.

No one misses the victim, an arrogant lech who sexually abused the nurses, bunked alone and had no friends, but wielded a scalpel like a genius, which, to the hospital commanding officer, was all that mattered. The all-powerful first sergeant, responsible for making the hospital run, resents Harkins on sight and won’t cooperate with the investigation. The CO wonders why a beat cop should lead the inquiry — couldn’t the provost’s office send anyone better? — and Harkins is inclined to agree.

Nevertheless, orders are orders, and Harkins quickly discovers that wherever he probes, something stinks, which leads him further on. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s say that the surgeon’s murder and the sexual abuse are just the beginning. Working on little sleep and facing obdurate officers who seem to have plenty to hide, Harkins finds his moxie. His stubbornness and sense of justice take hold, and he now insists on solving the case. He fears that if he doesn’t, the corruption will spread, and he gets wind that the brass wants to send him packing. Sensing resistance, he digs in and keeps fighting.

Such headaches have compensations, however. Eddie gets to talk to his older brother, Patrick, chaplain to a nearby regiment, their first conversation in more than a year. Also, a childhood friend, Kathleen Donnelly, is a nurse at the field hospital, and Harkins has always had a thing for her. But the way he recalls her from their school days bears no resemblance to her now:

The woman who let her arms fall from his shoulders looked nothing like he remembered. Her dark hair was chopped short and threaded with dust, a few lonely grays wiring out from her temples. Like every other GI in Sicily, she was drawn and sickly-thin, dirt ground into crow’s-feet beside eyes that did not flash, barely looked blue anymore. She wore a man’s fatigue uniform cinched tight at the waist. The legs of her trousers stood clear of her own legs like stovepipes; the uniform was dirty enough to stand up in a corner on its own.

But that scarecrow is an exceptionally competent, confident professional, and the reader will be awed, just as Harkins is. Her story, and those of the other nurses, is one reason to read Blame the Dead. With impressive authority, Ruggero conveys the impossible conditions in which these women work heroically to save horribly mangled men, only to have to dodge unwanted advances (and worse) by men protected from complaint or protest. As you might imagine, the army is the last place where a woman’s word carries weight, and this is 1943, so forget notions of respect, let alone equality. Whatever happens must be their fault, anyway, saith those in charge.

That authorial authenticity extends to the soldiers’ dialogue and interactions. Ruggero graduated West Point and served as an officer, but he’s also researched his ground thoroughly, re-creating the hierarchy, atmosphere, and workings of a World War II field hospital, as well as the city of Palermo, which emerges vividly. As for “no — and furthermore,” rest assured that nothing comes easily for Harkins, who’s continually out of his depth. The pages turn rapidly. As a sidelight, I also appreciate the criticisms the author has his characters make of General George Patton’s callousness toward his soldiers, for which the field hospital picks up the pieces—literally.

Much as I like the story, though, Blame the Dead feels cluttered, with at least a couple too many voices, nonstop everything, and no time or space to reflect on intense, earth-shaking events. Partly that’s the genre, and Harkins is working under tremendous pressure of time, which Ruggero cleverly squeezes. Yet I hope that in future adventures (this novel promises a series), the author shows the confidence to slow down a little, especially when the addition of still more stuff begins to seem contrived.

The villain’s a contrivance too, unraveling toward the end into lunacy, a cop-out I dislike. As for the villainy, that takes such elaborate, baroque turns that I kept wishing that Occam’s razor, to which one character refers, applied here. Those complications further require the resolution to become a sequence of derring-do that evokes more than one cliché.

That said, I find Blame the Dead an arresting, compelling story, and I hope the sequels find a more compatible balance between character and plot.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book through my work for Historical Novels Review, in which this post appeared in shorter, different form.