By Karen Winters Schwartz
Goodman Beck Publishing (2014)
Living with mental illness every day—combined with societal stigma and the frustration toward a broken mental health care system—can feel insurmountable. As the president of NAMI Syracuse and a public speaker and advocate, Karen Winters Schwartz is very much aware of the price of ignorance and judgment, and she does a terrific job of channeling these experiences together into a mystery novel that is as saddening as it is compelling.
The Chocolate Debacle introduces us to Trey Barkley, a professional dog walker with schizophrenia. When he finds himself accused of the murder of his client and friend Flo Loughton, the subsequent events threaten to destroy his livelihood, his freedom and his sanity, which he has successfully maintained for the last several years.
The book’s viewpoint shifts back and forth between several main characters, as well as the timeline between Flo’s last few weeks alive and the investigation itself. Page by page, the story starts to tie itself together, weaving clues toward the real perpetrator with Trey’s life story and the prejudice he faces from the police and the town.
Schwartz portrays a very real picture of small-town life and the unlikely friendship between two “misfits” who bond over Flo’s dog Hector. She unveils the stigma that affects people with mental illness and their families, as well as the inherent fallibility of our criminal justice system. As the story comes to its climax, we find ourselves groping to put the last clues together, both of Flo’s death and Trey’s journey through the legal system. Will Trey be cleared? What really happened to Flo? And where is Hector?
While the ending is certainly completely unexpected, it’s Trey’s plight that leaves us haunted, wondering what part we would play. Would we contribute to the neighborhood’s mob mentality, or would we turn a blind eye? Would we speak out? And what if we were in Trey’s place? How would we claim innocence, knowing that our community bases its suspicions on something we cannot control? Who would listen? And would we have the inner strength to persevere? These are the questions Schwartz forces us to consider, and we may find the answers troubling.
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