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The trap

Who Named the Knife A Book of Murder and Memory; Linda Spalding; Pantheon: 262 pp., $23.95

September 16, 2007|Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is a professor at Boston University.

The title "Who Named the Knife" might at first suggest a history of a familiar, sharp-edged object. But what author Linda Spalding has crafted is a memoir of murder, marriage and what might have been.

By turns -- and in equal measure -- intriguing and frustrating, "Who Named the Knife" is the true story of how the life of a successful American novelist transplanted to Canada came to be intertwined with that of a young woman convicted of killing two men. It is a tale as much about guilt -- the nagging emotion that plagues Spalding -- as it is about the guilty verdict that sent Maryann Acker to prison for life.

A full quarter-century ago, Spalding was a single mother living in Hawaii, struggling to raise two girls. She was thrilled to be summoned to serve on a jury, in large part because duty in the Honolulu courtroom meant double pay. Spalding was named an alternate juror in the trial of Acker, an 18-year-old Mormon accused of killing a man with her then-husband in the course of a robbery.

William Acker -- an ex-con who was 10 years his wife's senior -- turned state's evidence and testified against Maryann in Hawaii, saying she committed the murder, as he had when the couple faced similar charges in California. The pair favored two weapons: a gun they dubbed Little John and a knife they called Justice.

Spalding took notes from the start. She described details like the gold pen that seemed permanently affixed to the prosecutor's right hand and the defense lawyer's bad outfit -- "Brown jacket! Green pants!" But she felt an immediate and strong sense of connection with the defendant whom she describes as being "as pale as the moon." Her notebook fast became more like "letters to Maryann, as if I thought we might meet someday and talk about her trial."

For Spalding, the proceedings also stirred up unresolved feelings -- about her own childhood, but mostly about her daughters' father. Like Maryann Acker, Spalding had loved and married a master manipulator. They each had chosen men their parents despised. William Acker betrayed his wife in court; Spalding's first husband deceived and deserted her. In a dream, Spalding writes, she saw Maryann Acker "as part of my American past."

Eighteen years passed before Spalding stumbled on her courtroom journal. By then the writer was remarried and living in Toronto. She located Acker, corresponded and eventually traveled to California to meet her in prison. They talked regularly by phone. "Love ya" was how Acker routinely signed her letters to Spalding. As Acker commented during Spalding's third prison visit: "Linda, I can't say for sure what brought you back into my life at this point, but we have a unique bond, wouldn't you say?"

That bond forms the crux of this unusual book. Though largely lyrical, Spalding's prose at times feels strained. Sometimes the links to Acker feel stretched. Often Spalding wonders whether she is exploring Acker's past or her own. Without a doubt, as she superimposes her life story against Acker's, she is doing both.

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