Death as a Living by Doyle Burke

Doyle Burke and Lou Grieco’s new book, Death as a Living: Investigating Murder in America’s Heartland (Inkshares 2021) is a complex text that is part memoir, part police procedural, and part geographical history set in the unlikely location of Dayton, Ohio.

The text recounts key episodes in the life of homicide detective Doyle Burke. Burke’s career, spanning from the late 1970s into the mid-2000s, is chock-full of fascinating criminal cases. As the investigator of over 1000 murder cases in a very complicated city full of geographical and social complexities that do not often make for easy investigating, Burke takes the reader on a tour through some of the most memorable events in his career. However, throughout the text Burke also intersperses his own perspective on race and policing, stress, and trauma in relation to policing, as well as some of the deaths that shaped his career.

This book is a very complicated one. Fundamentally, this text has some issues related to perspective and voice that felt disconnected from my own. The memoir has obviously been written in response to the anti-police sentiment that has taken hold culturally as people in the United States and around the world protest police-involved deaths, especially the deaths of black citizens. These protests have led to important calls to defund the police in order to remove some of the power they hold due to the often systemic and deeply ingrained racially motivated biases many police departments exhibit. These calls for defunding are rooted in a desire to redistribute and question power and who holds it, especially in a country where violent and deadly weapons often become the first resort in any given conflict.

Burke’s response to these issues is tone deaf, to say the least. While he raises valid issues around the complexity of race relations at the microcosmic level, and while there are undoubtedly valid conversations to be had around the degree to which trauma effects police officers, Burke spends no time interrogating why these traumas and inequities are allowed to proliferate and what systems allow this cycle to occur. Burke’s perspective is very much one of “a few bad apples” rather than a deeply flawed and centuries-long systemic problem that values certain lives over others under a capitalist policing system. In other words, it seems that, in Burke’s quest to value the work of police officers, he misses the entire point of what “defund the police” actually means. He makes no effort to question the system that he is ingrained in, and that is a massive problem in this text. There are many moments where Burke’s misapprehension is clear in the text, and it is a dangerous precedent to set in a true crime text, especially in one dealing with the perspective of a law enforcement officer. This book had the potential to be well-executed. The reflections of a 30-year homicide detective in a city with its own very nuanced history of race relations has the potential to be interesting if read in the right context, but this book misses that point in a big way.

This is not to say that this book has no hope as a true crime text, although I would argue that it is certainly hopeless if it aims to ingratiate itself into a “hall of fame” of current true crime that addresses these systemic problems. Burke has many interesting stories to tell, and he is clearly invested in his home city and works hard in the narrative to paint a picture for the reader against which these stories are set. Burke has encountered some truly bizarre and tragic cases in his years as a detective, and I was entertained. However, when Burke began to moralize in the wrong direction, I was lost. I deeply wish this had been a text with a different tone altogether, as I’m not sure it is worth reading, despite how interesting the stories he tells are. A book like this—with such an overtly responsive tone—cannot help but miss the mark.

Please add Death as a Living to your Goodreads shelf.

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About the Writer:

Rachel M. Friars (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. She holds a BA and an MA in English Literature with a focus on neo-Victorianism and adaptations of Jane Eyre. Her current work centers on neo-Victorianism and nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history, with secondary research interests in life writing, historical fiction, true crime, popular culture, and the Gothic. Her academic writing has been published with Palgrave Macmillan and in The Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies. She is a reviewer for The Lesbrary, the co-creator of True Crime Index, and an Associate Editor and Social Media Coordinator for PopMeC Research Collective. Rachel is co-editor-in-chief of the international literary journal, The Lamp, and regularly publishes her own short fiction and poetry. Find her on Twitter and Goodreads

A digital copy of this book was graciously provided to True Crime Index from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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