- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007


By Kevin Flynn

Putnam, $25.95, 371 pages


A brutal double murder with no eyewitnesses. A remorseless defendant with one of the city’s premier defense attorneys at his side. A young prosecutor who must doubt almost everything he thinks he knows about his case if he wants to see justice done.

And hovering over it all, the certainty that occasionally the innocent are convicted and the guilty go free. Put these elements together, and you have the makings of a great crime novel.

But that novel, gripping as it would be, is precisely the book first-time author Kevin Flynn did not write. Instead, Mr. Flynn’s “Relentless Pursuit” gives readers a view of the criminal justice system as it really functioned in a real D.C. murder case, the 1994 trial of Norman Harrell for the murders of Diane Hawkins and Katrina Harris.

Mr. Flynn served as the federal prosecutor, and he writes with an unremitting emphasis on hard fact that makes his account not just a page-turner but an eye-opener as well.

Mr. Flynn tells the story with a vivid attention to detail that would be quite difficult for a novelist to match. This concreteness makes for compelling reading, but it also allows Flynn-the-author to give his readers what Flynn-the-prosecutor tried to give his jurors: a sense of place, a context in which to understand what really happened.

The names and places mentioned in the book are real names and real places, known to much of “unofficial” Washington. Mr. Flynn’s disturbingly real portrait of 1990s D.C. street culture, and of the immense efforts required to do justice in just one case, generates and sustains intense interest in the outcome of criminal investigation — an outcome that is genuinely in doubt throughout the book just as it was throughout the trial.

But many readers will find even more to like in the way Mr. Flynn attends to the convergence of so many seemingly independent lives. The victims have their own storylines, which Mr. Flynn traces all the way back to colonial North Carolina. The accused has his own tale as well, to which Mr. Flynn gives balanced, even sympathetic treatment.

When it comes to witnesses — those who cooperated and those who did not — Flynn-the-author respects the stories just as Flynn-the-prosecutor had to.

But Mr. Flynn lavishes most of his attention on the victims’ extended family, a large, multigenerational source of strength and solace not just for each other but for Mr. Flynn. One expects a prosecutor in Mr. Flynn’s position to feel a sense of the family’s dependence on him for seeing justice done, and he is explicit about the pressure he felt.

But one of the most arresting passages tells how Mr. Flynn walked into a meeting of this clan thinking he was fighting for them, and found himself unexpectedly becoming the object of the family’s spiritual support.

Why? Because as chance or something better would have it, Mr. Flynn took the Harrell case to trial while juggling relatively unfamiliar roles in his personal life, both as a new father and as a son who needed to support his aging parents in their own illnesses.

Mr. Flynn is not, of course, the first 30-something in whom a parent’s mortality induced deep personal reflection about work, family and fate, but he writes about these themes with considerable insight and emotion. The effect of this parallel storyline on the trial is marginal, and surely it would have been possible to tell the Harrell story without mentioning Mr. Flynn’s parents. Such a book would not have been in any way incomplete, but it would have been decidedly diminished.

Most conspicuously, the reader senses that Mr. Flynn would never write the book that way because that’s not the way it happened. In 1993 and 1994, Kevin Flynn was more than a public servant who put bad guys in jail; he was also a husband, a father and a son.

The Harrell trial was, by Mr. Flynn’s own account, the biggest case of his career, but he knows it happened in a particular context and is at pains to give it to us. Similarly, while Mr. Flynn acknowledges his near-obsession with the Harrell case, a fixation that has lasted more than a decade, he repeatedly reminds the reader that this was just one murder case in a city plagued by hundreds each year.

And by extension, we are led to reflect on how inescapably human the whole criminal justice system is, how much the process and the outcome mean to everyone involved and how much both depend on the strengths and limitations we all carry within us.

Mr. Flynn also draws our attention to what Hannah Arendt famously described as “the banality of evil.” Despite his confession early in the book that he has “an occasional tendency to paint the world with a palette that lacks the color gray,” Mr. Flynn consistently focuses on the ordinariness of the man he accuses of the murder.

Fundamental to the drama of the Harrell trial is the fact that the defendant was an unremarkable middle-aged guy who had worked as a truck driver for years without serious incident.

The crime scene, on the other hand, suggested that the culprit must be a true monster. Mr. Flynn observes, “The killers among us don’t walk about like Beelzebub in a horror movie, with dragging tail and dripping fangs. They don’t lead with their evil; they lead with their blandness and keep their evil hidden.” Referring to the man who committed the Hawkins/Harris murders, Mr. Flynn insists, “He didn’t do them because he was evil. He was evil because he did them.”

The pre-release marketing for “Relentless Pursuit” seems to target lawyers — specifically, “anyone who has ever had the honor of rising in court, saying their name and then saying the words ‘for the government.’” This is an almost unforgivable slight to Mr. Flynn’s accomplishment.

Prosecutors as a group may well have more war stories per capita than any other segment of the population, and I suspect — certainly I hope — that most prosecutors know in their bones much of what Mr. Flynn has to say here.

It is rather the general reader who will likely profit most from “Relentless Pursuit,” the reader who has not seen criminality close enough to appreciate its ordinariness, the reader who has perhaps read too many gripping crime novels or watched too many cop shows on television. Any such reader who picks up “Relentless Pursuit” will be rewarded with a great story, to be sure, but also with a fascinating window into this darkest of places in human nature.

Mark Grannis is a lawyer in Washinton, D.C.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide