Danya Kukafka’s debut Girl in Snow was a small town murder mystery that focussed more on the three characters caught up in the crime than on the crime itself. Her follow up, Notes on an Execution, does something similar. The central plot revolves around Ansell Packer, a serial killer on death row, awaiting execution. But the heart of the story is a group of very different women and their connection with Packer and his actions. And at the same time, it becomes a meditation on the decisions that we make in our lives, the paths taken and the paths not taken.
When Notes on an Execution opens, Ansell Packer has twelve hours until his execution. The sections relating to Ansell are narrated in second person, creating an immediacy and a complicity that is well pitched and difficult to shake. The story soon drops back to 1973 and the story of Ansell’s mother Lavender who finds herself needing to flee from an abusive relationship but in doing so having to abandon her young children, including a young Ansell and his baby brother. Jumping forward readers are introduced to Saffron Singh who disastrously encounters Ansell in a foster home and later becomes a detective and then Hazel, twin sister of Ansell’s wife Jenny. The story follows the three women over the years as Lavender considers reconnecting with her children, Saffron investigates a cold case and suspects Ansell but has no proof and Hazel deals with the a complicated relationship with her twin. Meanwhile the deadline to Ansell’s execution ticks down.
Notes on an Execution breaks out from the usual serial killer narrative and delivers something unique. While it does try to provide some psychological explanation for Packer’s actions it does not excuse him and it does not revel in the killer’s point of view that is so prevalent in these narratives. Kukafka is more interesting in exploring the ripple effects of violence, of the lost potential of those who are killed but also of the human capacity to grow and change and learn (even Ansell to some extent, although he is never redeemed). While Kukafka delivered a solid debut, with Notes on an Execution she steps up a level, using crime genre tropes to explore hard questions.