Review: An Unexplained Death

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know how I feel about Mikita Brottman’s latest work of nonfiction, An Unexplained Death. In a few words: transcendent. Introspective. Provocative.

I was immediately drawn to the story’s premise: Rey Rivera, a charismatic and kind young man, goes missing one spring day. A week later, his body is discovered at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, and the investigators spend very little time determining it is likely a suicide . . . but they dub the causes “undetermined.” Belvedere resident (the hotel is now an apartment building) Mikita Brottman is captivated by this mystery. Was it really a suicide? Why did the investigators do such a terrific job of traipsing all over the crime scene? Why wasn’t she questioned, though the body fell right past her window? What would lead such a handsome and seemingly-successful man to take his own life?

What ensues is Brottman’s obsessive investigation of Rivera’s death and, mingled in among the details of the hunt, her macabre fascination with the hotel’s history of remarkable suicides. An Unexplained Death is almost, to be honest, three different novels in one: it’s a history of the Belvedere Hotel; it’s a true crime work that explores Rey Rivera’s death; and it’s an exploratory memoir that maps out Brottman’s fixation with life, death, and worthiness.

Brottman’s strengths lie in her analyses of very human traits — our fixation on the misfortune of others, our proclivities for stories with “juicy” details and gruesome outcomes, our predilection for judgement even in the cases of victims. I was stricken many times by the honest — and far-reaching — insights Brottman presents to readers. An example:

“Our unease and mistrust around the stories of missing people is a defense mechanism that lets us keep the horror at bay; we can reassure ourselves that many missing people aren’t ‘really’ missing, and as for kidnap victims, they must have been weak and gullible enough to fall in love with their captors, something a stable, rational person would surely never do.” (p. 6)

I mean, seriously. Here’s the nail, and here’s Brottman hitting it on the head.

“When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.” (p. 11)

And it doesn’t end at page 11, the noteworthy gemmary of Brottman Wisdom:

“When an event has far-reaching consequences, we assume its causes must be equally momentous, just as when we want to roll a higher number, we shake the dice harder, and for a longer time.” (p. 79)

An Unexplained Death is more than a well-researched work of nonfiction. In a highly-readable narrative form, Brottman manages to take readers on a journey of discovery — of Rey Rivera’s life and death, of the author’s own sense of self, of readers’ tendencies toward the macabre and morbidity. The work is obsessive, it’s introspective, and it’s absolutely captivating. Brottman’s insightful observations on human nature throughout this book are just startlingly good.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A must-read for fans of true crime or nonfiction in general.