"Words to Die For" By: Lynn Kostoff

Feb 1, 2021

 

“Words to Die For” 

Author: Lynn Kostoff 

Publisher: New Pulp Press (Reissue) 

Pages: 382 

Price: $15.95 (Paper) 

Dark Novel Explores the Ethics of Damage Control PR 

In the 1980s, Lynn Kostoff was an instructor at UA, then held the post of writer-in-residence at Francis Marion College in South Carolina for 32 years. Recently he retired. 

Kostoff has published four novels, highly praised. The titles give direction: “A Choice of Nightmares,” “The Long Fall,” “Late Rain.” These are crime novels, thrillers, page-turners. 

This fourth novel does not fit easily into the crime fiction genre. There is no gunfire, little physical violence, no policemen or private detectives. 

This is smart, thoughtful literary fiction, very dark, with most characters lacking any character.  

It is 1986. The protagonist, Raymond Locke, works for Public Domain, a public relations firm in fictional St. Carlton, Indiana, on Lake Michigan. The setting doesn’t matter much. Human greed, lust, folly, stupidity, rage exist wherever you care to set your novel. 

Early in the story we learn that Raymond, 38, works in the Special Services Division, expert at saving rotten people from the shame and punishment they deserve. 

Past clients include The Bushel of Love Day Care Center, where “the son of the owner…had managed to run afoul of a number of man’s and god’s laws, and the local Diocese where Bishop DeMarco’s mistress committed suicide and forwarded a copy of her send-off letter to the St. Carlton Courier…It contained a none too subtle account of the Bishop’s sexual predilections and his extravagant gifts and promises....” Raymond also helps the host of a children’s TV program, “The Commander Rules!” who has been filmed with hookers. 

Raymond’s technique for simpler cases is well known to us all. Get out in front of the scandal, have client weep on TV, admit his guilt, which is really a sickness, promise to seek help. 

For the more complicated cases, Raymond will bribe witnesses, pay to gain access to police files, manufacture and plant evidence, do deep opposition research to find material to silence his client’s critics. Really, he’ll do just about anything short of assault or murder. 

Raymond realizes this is slimy. He admits that without people like him, the world would be a better place, not “a safe harbor for all the miscreants, criminals, fools, deviants and sinners he’s fixed things for.”  

He is in fact appalled by his own behavior—will we become what we do? Will the foulness we handle stick to us forever?—but rationalizes that as long as he feels appalled, he’ll be all right; “appalled was the line of breadcrumbs he dropped to find his way back home.” 

And with a severely autistic son who requires expensive care and treatments, Raymond needs the money. 

We are familiar with the argument surrounding defense attorneys. All accused are entitled to competent representation in court. Can this kind of damage control, the whitewashing of the guilty, be construed as a parallel and respectable profession?  

Already emotionally shaky, Raymond is assigned the Happy Farms case. A huge chicken processing company, already well known for numerous health code violations, sent to their franchises tons of chicken contaminated by E. coli, salmonella and several other pathogens. Over 140 people became violently ill and one, a ten-year-old girl, is in a coma, with a furious father who will surely sue and be awarded millions. 

Raymond learns that Happy Farms has been written up often: “a Dantesque nightmare of overcrowded and contaminated holding houses, debeaking procedures gone awry, stun gun malfunctions that left the birds conscious even after the throat-slitting phase, and the eventual immersion in scalding feces-choked water to facilitate the removal of feathers.” 

The egomaniacal owner of Happy Farms, Lamar Ditell, is a 4’ 10” eccentric, with a house and furniture custom-made to his size. Ditell is without shame or remorse: his philosophy is that the world is a violent chicken yard, with an immutable pecking order. He hires Public Domain and Raymond to fix things, get the press off his back, relieve the pressure from the district attorney. 

As the days unfold, in a kind of meta-counterpoint, on the television screens of these various characters, the Iran-Contra affair is being televised, with the inquiry run by Senator Tower. Clearly, government officials had broken the Boland Amendment. Casper Weinberger, Colonel Oliver North, a dozen others were covering up, spinning the truth. “Raymond envied Reagan, North, Weinberger, Casey, and company. They were going to get away with it.” 

Raymond goes to work, a Herculean task, one that will take his already distressed psyche into deeper and darker places than even he is accustomed to. 

Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.