Book review: An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman

An Unexplained Death - Mikita Brottman

The recent boom in Netflix true crime documentary series has perhaps led to certain expectations for shock revelations and finger-pointing, even if in reality of such cases in The Staircase and Making of a Murderer can never answer the basic questions of the unexplained deaths at the heart of their true-life crime dramas. Anyone expecting a definitive answer in Mikita Brottman's investigation into the mysterious unexplained death of one man in her home town of Baltimore is going to be disappointed then, but just as those Netflix series throw a fascinating light on the American legal system and processes and reveal underlying social issues and prejudices, so too Brottman's An Unexplained Death likewise has other worthwhile avenues of interest to explore.

Not everything can be explained, particularly when it comes to the motivations and state of mind of a man who leaves home unexpectedly one evening in 2006 and doesn't come back. His body is found eight days later in the annexe to a tall building, apparently having crashed through the roof in a suicide jump. There are however no witnesses, no clues and only a strange note left by his computer that doesn't look like a suicide note, and there were no indications in the run-up to his death that Rey Rivera, a freelance video producer and budding filmmaker, was depressed, suffering from financial or marital problems, had any history of mental illness or reason why he might contemplate taking his own life.

The nature of Rivera's death is initially recorded as 'undetermined', but doubts about whether it was really as suicide or a homicide linger among family and friends and the case remains open, even if no one is officially investigating it any longer. There is in fact a curious reluctance from anyone involved in the investigation to speak about the case on-record or even off-record, as Rey's wife and friends find out, and even some warnings not to ask questions and watch your back are intriguingly offered when the writer Mikita Brottman starts to probe further into Rivera's background and his association with a certain secretive financial investment organisation.

Brottman's personal interest in the case is freely discussed, almost as much as the case itself. She lives in the apartment block of the historic former hotel, the Belvedere, the same tall building that Rey Rivera threw himself from, and Brottman even recorded in her diary hearing a loud crash the night of his fall. The author also admits to her own insecurities as an "invisible person", and her interest in the lure of crime and mystery, citing observations by Edgar Allan Poe, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and even the X-Files in relation to Rey Rivera's mysterious unexplained death. "All my life I've wanted to experience something like this, something inexplicable", she confesses.

Brottman however is methodical in her more conventional research and investigation - almost morbidly so in relation to suicide, its causes and statistics, the methods used across the world and specifically with regard to the macabre case studies associated with the Belvedere. As downright bizarre as some of those cases are, none of them are as strange as the case of Rey Rivera. Or at least not as far as Mikita Brottman is concerned. To the reader there's initially little that stands out in the Rivera case as suspicious, nothing that would lead you to believe that it was anything but just another suicide. Essentially, by the time you get to the end you don't really find out anything more than you knew at the start of An Unexplained Death. And perhaps that's what is strange about it.

There are however a number of intriguing avenues explored by Brottman along the way. Rivera's involvement with Agora, a dubious investment advice and tax avoidance company connected to William Rees-Mogg, raises some troubling questions, but since no one from there is willing to talk about Rey it's another dead-end that only adds to the mystery. Brottman fills the book out with her own personal responses and anecdotes, with research, theories and case studies that are tangential and sometimes seem to have little relevance. The lack of any real discoveries, revelations or conclusions then is inevitably disappointing but An Unexplained Death remains a fascinating read. Perhaps it's simply accepting the fact that we can never truly know what another person is going through and that there are some things we can never know that may be the real point here.

An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere by Mikita Brottman is published by Canongate Books on 8th November 2018

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