Choi's Person of Interest: Who Isn't Guilty?


Mere presence is a common defense in criminal cases. Thus, although you were standing next to the person who eventually pulled a gun out and robbed the bank, you are not a coc0nspirator unless you and the robber actually conceived of the heist. You were merely present when another person acted.

But tell that to a law enforcement agent. Sometimes the mere presence of an investigator can turn even the firmest bowels to water. Why is that? What transforms an innocent person into a self-doubting mope?

Susan Choi's, A Person of Interest, provides one sort of answer: We are all guilty of something. Like seedlings in spring we merely await warmth and water to blossom into self-hatred.

Choi's work is not the vacant sort of existentialism that might support such a proposition. Her prose are dense, and her protagonist is a complete human being. He is a professor of mathematics at a midwestern college nearing the end of a ho hum career. As he sits in his office one day steeped in resentment of a colleague who has found fame, fortune and popularity serving the new masters of computer science, a blast throws him to the floor. A bomb has gone off, and it has exploded in the office in the office of the professor's hated rival.

In that instant, the professor became a person of interest to federal investigators. His life is upended. Alive to the deeper rythyms of his life, the professor knows he had no role in sending the bomb, but his mind is now alive and in search of answers. Like the FBI agent who pursues him, the professor plots motive, opportunity and circumstantial evidence to arrive at the identity of the killer. The feds do, too. Both are looking for a killer and both have different suspects in mind.

But I do injustice to the book portraying it as a mere thriller. Choi's prose are as fine as silk. And her rendering of the so-called guilty mind profound. The professor feels guilt for something he has not done. He comes to doubt himself and this doubt draws watching eyes intent on solving a crime. "Even he felt a sick-making upsurge of doubt; he had been in a room right next door, and the merciless truth of these words seemed to press on him lurid ideas that were not true at all. Was he a sleepwalking bomber? A servant of Satan? Why was his own innocence not a plain fact for him, but elusive and fragile, a condition requiring caretaking he couldn't provide?"

Choi doesn't provide the answer. Good fiction does not preach. She writes lovingly of a man alone, who, in a crisis, learns something about love and about trust. Choi's a writer worth reading.

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