Ansel Packer has 12 hours to live. He’s been sentenced to death and barring the last minute clemency call by his lawyer to the Texas governor, which is unlikely to prove fruitful, the appeals process has been exhausted. There’s a vigil outside the prison by people who don’t believe in the death penalty and a protest by those who want to see the execution go ahead.
Over the 12 hours we follow Packer and the people around him, from the chaplain talking of repentance to the guard who believes he is innocent. Shawna Billings has delivered a message to the one person Packer wants to witness his death and Beatrice ‘Blue’ Harrison will be there with him at the end.
This matters to him, although the psychologist doesn’t think Packer feels empathy for others. No remorse for the murders of several women over a number of decades. Author Danya Kukafka’s portrait of the killer is nuanced, though crucially, not sympathetic. His guilt is in no doubt but there are arguments around nature versus nurture in Packer’s story. Suffice to say Packer’s mum always suspected something was wrong but the doctors said he was just different, slow maybe. Add an abusive childhood and abandonment and maybe his path to serial killer was mapped out early on.
This is more than Packer’s story though. Serial killer thrillers as pure entertainment have dropped off the radar recently reflecting qualms about the way they portray murderers. In Notes on an Execution, Kukafka strives to focus on the victims and the survivors, particularly three women who were in Packer’s life.
It all starts in 1973 with his mother. Lavender marries Johnny, they are poor and poorly equipped for a life together. They can’t afford a doctor and Packer is born in their barn. The love soon dies, replaced by hunger and hardship. Johnny is angry, resentful and abusive. They have a second child, a girl, but now a toddler Ansel begins exhibiting disturbing traits. Roll on a few years and after an attack by Johnny on her and the children Lavender gets him away from the farm. She hopes the authorities can save the children because neither parent ever returns. Lavender has to carry the guilt for the rest of her life.
By the 1980s, Ansel Packer is in care at Miss Gemma’s home for children where he meets Saffron Singh. He tries to forge a friendship but it goes disastrously wrong as he can’t grasp what is appropriate. Puberty and early relationships are traumatic. Saffron never forgets the odd boy at the home and many years later, after she becomes a detective, they will cross paths again.
Then in the 1990s Packer marries and the deterioration of that relationship is seen through the eyes of his wife’s sister, Hazel. Rather than a conventional crime narrative the book covers the stories of these women. It’s about how their connection to Packer crushes their lives and how they rebuild, come to terms with the trauma and even overcome it. It’s a tale of resilience and survival. As well as their pain and dysfunction over the years we become aware of their strength. Packer becomes insignificant – it’s the victims who matter.
This is an intelligent empathetic story. It’s a haunting tale that will stay with you long after you’ve read it. Beware – it’s an intense experience and the struggles of the women are deeply moving. So this is a thought provoking and challenging read but it is also darkly gripping. Chilling but you daren’t look away.
Packer becomes the things he has done, the lives he has wrecked, the legacy of pain that can weigh on future generations. The women are so much more than that point of contact with the killer. That’s what it’s all about – the characters are truly engaging but be prepared for tough going. This is tragic, unsentimental and un-exploitative.
Kukafka does get it to the head of the killer, Packer, his lack of empathy and disconnect. Is he a monster, because what he does is certainly monstrous, or is his mind broken, a fissure opened by a dysfunctional life?
Notes on an Execution also reflects on the grotesque formality of judicial murder. Questioning our own motives; desire for revenge or justice. More than anything this is a compelling account of the consequences of violence and murder. Each murder sends a shock wave. You can’t help thinking about lives cut short and about why male violence towards women is something that pervades society and yet is so poorly addressed.
Not for you if you want a straightforward mystery thriller. For something closer to that, that still focuses on victims try Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars