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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dead Horse

Walter Satterthwait

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To purchase Dead Horse

Title: Dead Horse
Author: Walter Satterthwait
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 182 pages
Availability: Dead Horse - US
Dead Horse - UK
Dead Horse - Canada
  • The Stark House edition (2020) includes an Introduction by Rick Ollerman

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Our Assessment:

B : snappy dialogue, but a suspicious-death investigation story that's too constrained by being real-life based

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Sun . 7/2/2007 Otto Penzler

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) lousy title for a terrific mystery novel (.....) Mr. Satterthwait has brought the neglected Whitfield to full life, painting a bright portrait of a man whose carnal appetites cut short his career, much as they did his old pal Dashiell Hammett." - Otto Penzler, The New York Sun

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dead Horse is based on a real-life suspicious death, that of Emily Davies Vanderbilt Thayer Whitfield in 1935. She had married then-popular mystery author Raoul Whitfield two years earlier; the 'Dead Horse' of the title is the name of the New Mexico ranch they lived on.
       Author Walter Satterthwait takes the few known facts about the couple and the circumstances of Emily's death and spins a story around it that offers an explanation for what occurred, but while that and the resolution of the case are satisfactory, they hardly convince as any sort of bombshell revelation: Dead Horse very much remains very speculative fiction -- as is also made clear by the fact that its central character, the dedicated and soon obsessed local sheriff, Tom Delgado, is entirely fictional, and that another major figure, while based on a real person, has been considerably embellished. What actually happened does, however, certainly suggest that there was more to this death than the authorities were willing to concede -- with Satterthwait noting in a note at the end of the novel that: "The local newspapers of the time all implied that she had been murdered, and that the truth of her death was being covered up".
       The death, and how it was handled, certainly seems iffy: Emily was found dead with a gunshot wound that would be odd and physically awkward for her to have inflicted herself, and there was no suicide note. By the time Tom gets to the crime scene local Assistant District Attorney Peter Alonzo and Raoul's attorney, Murray Carleton, are already there -- and Alonzo has seen to it that a coroner's jury already handed down a finding of suicide, basically closing the case before Tom has had the slightest chance to sniff around. Tom understandably doesn't like the look of things and continues to investigate -- becoming obsessed by the case.
       There were no signs of forced entry at the ranch, and the only other person in the house was the foreman, Victor Chervet, who claims not to have heard a shot and only discovered Emily in the morning. Raoul and Emily had recently had a falling out and divorce proceedings were in the works -- but Raoul had been staying in Los Angeles, which is where Tom then also reaches him to give him the bad news.
       Tom's attempts at investigation proceed mostly in conversations with the people who knew Emily and Raoul: a friend who had been visiting Emily; the woman who had come between the couple, Lois Bell -- who is also, conveniently, Murray Carleton's alibi (and he hers) for the night of the crime; as well as Raoul himself, and his manipulative lawyer Carleton. There are also flashbacks to earlier times, including how Raoul and Emily found each other, in Paris -- both wealthy, and he very successful at the time -- and their early time together. Their settling down in New Mexico is also described -- as are the difficulties that suddenly cropped up between them. Emily's great jealousy was one issue, and Raoul's writers-block another, as he finds himself managing little more than a few sketches and "limp vignettes".
       Emily was even wealthier than he was, and their combined fortunes afforded them a very comfortable life -- but it turns out to be too much of a good thing:

     He ahd taken the freedom she gave him and, over time, out of indolence and sloth, he had squandered it. And rather than punish himself for wasting his talent, he had punished Emily for providing the freedom. Punished her by destroying her dreams.
     But of course, because they shared the dreams, in the end he was punishing himself.
       Eventually, he winds up in young Lois' arms -- and Emily finds him there, tipped off by a caller that Tom can never identify, leading her to break it off with Raoul.
       Tom's investigation doesn't really get anywhere -- while meanwhile Raoul commits fully to Lois, and soon marries her; they escape on a fancy round-the-world-trip while Tom stews in New Mexico -- though when they finally return most of the money has run out and they eventually have to sell. It's downhill from there on for them too, with Lois a bona fide suicide soon later, and Raoul soon wasting away in hospital; the last section of the book takes place in 1943, Raoul already in decline when Tom confronts him one last time.
       Dead Horse captures some of Raoul Whitfield's grand lifestyle but little of him as writer; there's a good deal about him and some of his adventures (with cameos by Gertrude Stein and Dashiell Hammett), but mostly the novel stays grounded in New Mexico, focused on Tom and his obsession with the case. (Layering it on a bit thick, Satterthwait also gives Tom his own tragedy that he's never fully comes to terms with, the death of his wife -- which everyone understands was a suicide, but he insists on considering an accident.)
       The scenes of Raoul's excesses -- and Carleton's manipulations (he's the one who brought Raoul and Emily together, for one) -- are enjoyable, but Satterthwait is at his best in the fast back-and-forth dialogue, especially of Tom's not-quite-interrogations -- not least those with Raoul, who laughs:
Christ, Sheriff, do you think I'm an idiot ? I'm a writer. I've been inventing people like you for over twenty years. Cops, cons, private detectives. Shrewd county sheriffs. There's nothing you can say -- nothing -- that I haven't already put into someone's mouth.
       Basing his story on fact, Satterthwait also finds himself hemmed in by it. After a while, there's no getting around that:
     Time passed
     There weren't many more people to talk to, weren't many more leads to follow.
       So then also the resolution, a couple of years after the fact, is almost rather anticlimactic. And while Satterthwait offers a slice of the life of Raoul Whitfield, one can't help but feel that this colorful character could have offered a whole lot more material.
       Dead Horse is a fine, fast read with some great lines and some good scenes, but the facts constrain the novel, and even what Satterthwait adds to spice things up -- notably in the form of Carleton -- aren't enough to make for an entirely satisfying story. There is a lot of good material here, and Satterthwait presents quite a bit of it well -- but Raoul Whitfield's life could also have yielded a whole lot more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 July 2021

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Dead Horse: Reviews: Walter Satterthwait: Other books by Walter Satterthwait under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Walter Satterthwait lived 1946 to 2020.

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