A strange thing happened early one cold winter morning as Jember Roshan rode his bike to work at the Humber River Golf Club. – Downfall by Robert Rotenberg
As he was about to arrive at this exclusive, elite Toronto golf club to start his working day, Jember was rear ended by a black SUV. The impact of the hit catapulted him from his bike, and sent him rolling down the steep grade that led to the banks of the Humber River. His fall was broken not by a rock, or a tree, but a dark, spungy object. That object was the body of a dead homeless woman, who made her home in a squatters’ camp near the club.
When the coroner discovers that the dead woman’s cause of death was a blunt force trauma to the back of the skull from a vodka bottle, there is an uproar across the city by both the homeless community and the wealthy members of the golf club to solve this brutal murder. But when the bodies of two more homeless people are found in the same area with the same death causing injuries, then the pressure is on Toronto police homicide squad detectives Ari Greene and Daniel Kennicott to investigate the murders and catch the perpetrator before it explodes into a full blown killing spree against the city’s less fortunate residents.
That’s the premise behind Robert Rotenberg’s latest police thriller Downfall.
What I liked about this book is how its double barrel purpose of solving a string of murders and creating awareness of the plight of a major city’s homeless population practically grabs your attention from page 1. In fact, it almost reads like a script from an episode of “Law and Order” (doesn’t matter which spin-off from that TV franchise that first comes to mind). But this time, it’s not just the police and the lawyers who are on the case, but a number of other characters that are not directly involved in law enforcement, but somehow have a stake in this particular crime.
There’s Alison Greene, Detective Greene’s British-born daughter who works as a crusading reporter for a Toronto TV station’s nightly newscast, who makes it her mission to report on – and comprehend – the seamy side of the extreme poverty that plagues Toronto. Then there’s Dr. Burns, a fervent activist for the homeless who wants to publicize this cause through Alison’s daily news reports. And on a more poignant side, there’s Nancy Parish, a Toronto lawyer whose close friend from law school – Melissa – because of her mental health issues, ends up divorced from her marriage to a wealthy and social climbing Toronto city councilor and estranged from her daughter; and to add insult to injury, her former law school best friend Lydia ends up marrying her ex-husband. All of this emotional trauma forces Melissa onto the streets, and ends up tragically when her dead body is found on the banks of the Humber.
Rotenberg takes these subplots and neatly brings them all together towards the capture of the murderer, and practically each character contributes towards the satisfying denouement that concludes Downfall. As well, his grim descriptions of Toronto’s underbelly brings out the sad fact of how the plight of the homeless population taints the city’s image as Canada’s largest city.
Downfall is a gripping detective thriller that explicitly exposes the division between rich and poor, but also brings to light of the tragedy of being homeless and dispossessed that should not be treated as a social burden, but as a national emergency.