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A Novel

Written by Elizabeth L. SilverAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth L. Silver



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On Sale: June 11, 2013
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

An unforgettable and unpredictable debut novel of guilt, punishment, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive
 
      Noa P. Singleton never spoke a word in her own defense throughout a brief trial that ended with a jury finding her guilty of first-degree murder. Ten years later, having accepted her fate, she sits on death row in a maximum-security penitentiary, just six months away from her execution date.
Seemingly out of the blue, she is visited by Marlene Dixon, a high-powered Philadelphia attorney who is also the mother of the woman Noa was imprisoned for killing. Marlene tells Noa that she has changed her mind about the death penalty and Noa’s sentence, and will do everything in her considerable power to convince the governor to commute the sentence to life in prison, in return for the one thing Noa is unwilling to trade: her story.
      Marlene desperately wants Noa to reveal the events that led to her daughter’s death – events that Noa has never shared with a soul. With death looming, Marlene believes that Noa may finally give her the answers she needs, though Noa is far from convinced that Marlene deserves the salvation she alone can deliver. Inextricably linked by murder but with very different goals, Noa and Marlene wrestle with the sentences life itself can impose while they confront the best and worst of what makes us human in this haunting tale of love, anguish, and deception.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

It all started six months before X‑day when Oliver Stansted and Marlene Dixon visited the Pennsylvania Institute for Women in Muncy. Oliver trotted eagerly in first, like a wet surfer trying so desperately not to miss his second wave. He had thin brown hair that hung limply around the cherry contour of his face in a style that was probably at least a decade behind the times. (I know this because it was the hairstyle of choice when I was arrested.) A lone dimple nicked the center of his chin in a clean gunshot.

I was in the diminutive holding cell with the telephone receivers where they dragged me whenever I had a visitor. Visitors weren’t rare--a story for the local newspaper? a feature for a news magazine television series? a book deal?--but when Oliver Stansted came up for his first breath, firm but anxious, steady but nervous, twenty, maybe twenty-five, I realized that my expectations would quickly need readjustment.

“Noa, is it?” he said, speaking impossibly close to the receiver. “Noa Singleton?”

The aristocratic Noa is it? British phrasing of his greeting skipped upward at the end of the statement as if it were a posh question in one syllable. Confidence and naïveté burst in the same hyperenunciated greeting.

“My name is Oliver Stansted and I’m a lawyer in Philadelphia,” he said, looking down to his little script. His was handwritten in red ink. “I work for a nonprofit organization that represents inmates on death row and at various other points of the appeals process, and I’ve just recently been appointed to your case.”

“Okay,” I said, staring at him.

He was not the first wide-eyed advocate to use me as a bullet point on his climb to success. I was used to these unexpected visits: the local news reporters shortly after I was arrested, the national ones after my conviction, the appointed appellate lawyers year after begrudging year as I was drafted into the futile cycle of appeals without anyone truly listening to me explain that I had no interest in pursuing further legal action, that I just wanted to get to November 7 as quickly as possible. They, like this new one, had no concern for my choices.

“So what do you want with me?” I asked. “I’m out of appeals. They’re killing me in November. ‘First woman to fry in years.’ You read the news, don’t you?”

Mr. Oliver Stansted forced another smile to replicate the one that had deflated while I spoke. He ran his fingers through his hair, pulling it out of the clean part on the side, all in order to appear the very image of a public interest lawyer; a die-hard anti–death penalty advocate who chose to marry the alleged system of justice instead of entering a legal union of his own. And, like all the others who came to me before the middle-age conversion of Republicanism set in, even his voice was typecast to match his hairstyle and choice of wardrobe: docile as a prostrated ocean, as if he had slipped from his mother’s womb begging for a nonprofit position and studio apartment to match. I hated him instantly.

“Well, despite the fact that you’re out of appeals, I’ve been chatting with some of your lawyers, and--”

“--which ones?” I jumped. “Stewart Harris? Madison McCall?”

I’d been sitting in this cubicle for nearly a decade listening to a veritable rainbow of lawyers talk at me about the lowly little trial attorneys they thought screwed me over.

“Tell me this, Mr. Oliver Stansted. Why am I supposed to sit here and destroy their careers just so you can feel like you’re doing the right thing?”

He smiled again as if I had just complimented him.

“Well, I have spoken with Mr. Harris about some of the things that happened at your trial.”

“Harris is useless. What about McCall?”

He nodded and I could tell he’d prepared for this visit.

“Unfortunately, he’s since passed.”

“Passed?” I laughed. “No euphemisms here, Oliver. Ollie. Look around. I don’t think any one of us deserves a gentler explanation. What was it? Cancer? AIDS? I knew he slept around. Maybe it was syphilis.”

“There was a fire at his office,” he conceded. “He wasn’t able to get out in time. He died from smoke inhalation.”

My head nodded three short times. Things like this weren’t supposed to impact people like me.

“I see,” I finally said.

“I’ve also spoken to some of your appellate lawyers,” he added, moving on. “The habeas ones.”

“What did they tell you? That I was abused by my uncle? That I’m mentally unstable? That I didn’t mean to do it? That there’s something in my past that should give the court cause to spare me?”

I waited for a comeback. They always have one. It’s like law school trains these junkies to masticate language as if it’s gum. Stick a slice in your mouth, chew on it, blow it full of hot air, and then spit it on the ground when it no longer tastes good.

“No,” he said. “Not exactly.”

“So why are you here, then? I’ve come to terms. It’s over.” He followed my lips as I spoke, as if the Plexiglas between us stifled his voice. “And if I’m okay with it, you should be okay with it. You don’t even know me.”

“The thing is, we really do believe that you could be a good case for clemency.”

“We?” I asked.

“Yes, we think you’re in a remarkably unique position that could make a strong case for filing a clemency petition.”

And there we had it, the perennial reason for the visit. A deep-seated desire to right a wrong. Or wrong a right. Or right a wrong that was done rightly for someone who did something wrong. But there was nothing more to hear. He might as well have handed over another stack of appeals, new evidence on my behalf--all futile attempts of desperation that nearly every other person with a JD who’s met me has already tried.

“You think I’m wrongly convicted, don’t you?” I smiled. “You want to start your career off with a bowl of karma so big you’ll be set for all the nasty stuff you’ll do in the future when you work for a multinational bank or reinsurance company or something like that. Am I right?”

He didn’t reply at first.

“I’m right, right?”

Again, no reply.

I sighed. “Please.”

He looked around cautiously. “Innocence is always a factor to discuss, especially when dealing with executions.” He almost whispered, placing extra emphasis on the word innocence, as if it actually meant something to him alone.

The truth is, at one point, I did contemplate my innocence, but it was short lived, like adolescent lust or a craving for chocolate.

“Did you know, Ollie, that there are, like, five thousand lonely women in Europe who are dying to marry all the men in prison?” He didn’t respond. I don’t think he was amused. “You’re British, right?”

“Technically yes.” He nodded, not realizing I was barely listening. “I’m actually Welsh. I was born in Cardiff.”

“Well then. Guess how many Welsh Romeos we women have?”

Mute. He was mute.

I lifted my hand to my mouth as a whisper cone. “I’ll give you a clue. It’s the same amount as the Russian ones.”

Still nothing. His reticence wasn’t much of a surprise. Silence in retaliation did have its roots in proper places. After all, he walked in trying to act like Atticus Finch but didn’t realize that smug complacence on the body of a pale-skinned soccer player from Wales wasn’t exactly the most effective legal tactic.

“Ollie, you’ve got to be quick on your toes if you want to make it with the likes of these other defense attorneys,” I said, snapping my fingers. “They come in here semiannually, begging for my free hour a day, you know. Come on, you can do better.”

When he didn’t kick the ball back my way, I figured that was that for this umpteenth self-righteous solicitor.

“Fair enough,” I said, and then put the phone down. “Guard!”

“Noa, please listen,” he finally said, faintly. I could barely hear his words leaking from the receiver in my resting hand. “Please pick up the phone.”

He held out a hand to the division. Four of his fingers kissed the Plexiglas wall so that I could see their blueprints, little lines curved within the cushion of his surprisingly meaty fingertips. Their heat fogged the glass.

“We very much would like to talk to you.”

I waited for him to follow that statement with a name, but not one materialized. I almost turned away when he knocked again on the Plexiglas wall, imploring me to listen. A name drifted faintly through the noise. Hands pantomimed, beseeching me to pick up the receiver. Place it near your ear, I heard. Almost ten years after my incarceration, staring at that mismatched set of Welsh teeth, I could have sworn that Ollie Stansted was saying Sarah’s mother’s name.

“We?” I asked, eventually picking up the receiver.

He smiled, relieved.

“I’ve recently had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Marlene Dixon, and she believes that you should live. That is why we believe--the both of us--that you’re a viable candidate for clemency. It usually is a routine, dead-end last option, but because of her relationship with both . . .”

I stopped listening at “viable.” The last of his imprints had faded on the Plexiglas, and all that was left was a greasy translucent wall. It was the only thing I could focus on at that moment. The thick manufactured division between those who live and those who, well, live another way.

“Really,” I finally replied. “Marlene . . . ?”

The polysyllabic connection of letters that spelled out Mahrrrr-leeen Dihhhck-sunn brought me to nauseous self-flagellation every time I heard it, so for the last ten years, I’ve tried never to think of those sounds together. Ollie, clearly trying to think on his toes to compete no doubt with the likes of people just like Marlene Dixon, didn’t stop to listen to what I was saying, or not saying, or intimating, or, I don’t know, protesting in unrepentant silence. He was a quick learner--at least that’s one thing to admire about him on first impression.

“Mrs. Dixon has recently started a nonprofit organization called Mothers Against Death and doesn’t feel that even the cruelest of killers deserves to be murdered by the state. I’m one of the attorneys volunteering with MAD.”

The four syllables of her name continued reverberating in the telephone wire between us like a plucked string on a guitar.

“Mothers Against Death?” I said, forcing a laugh.

“Uh‑huh,” he said.

“Mothers Against Death?” I said again, this time, actually feeling the humor flush through my voice. “You’re kidding? MAD? Mad, like, you mean, like, angry?”

Oliver Stansted swallowed and looked back down to his lonely feet before pulling out a stack of papers. “Well, yes, M‑A‑D.” He spelled out the acronym, pausing between each letter with perfect diction. It must have been that trusty Oxbridgian education. Pygmalionesque right down to the pronunciation of the English language.

“Isn’t that a drunk driving group? Has she been sued yet for copyright infringement?” I laughed. “Oh, wouldn’t that be poetic.”

“That’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD,” he corrected, punctuating the extra D with discernible effort.

“MADD,” I recited, enunciating the monosyllabic word as clearly as possible. “MAD,” I tried again in the same inflection, as if articulating the difference between their and they’re. “They sound the same to me.”

“Please,” he said, rather impatiently.

“So what is it that the formidable Mrs. Dixon wants with me?” I finally asked. “Last I checked, I’m fairly certain she wanted to witness the execution. She testified at my penalty hearing, you know.”

I couldn’t tell if he already knew this or if he was still waiting on that memo to arrive at his desk.

“I believe she said that she thought the death penalty was the single most profound form of punishment to grace our nation’s system of justice, and one that should be reserved for only the most egregious of crimes and the most horrific of people who could be stopped by no other means than deactivating their path of terror.” I paused, flipping through the library of scenes in my mind. “And, if I remember correctly, she declared that, quote, ‘no person more suitably fit into the suit of a deserving body of that precious designer as did Noa P. Singleton.’ Closed quote,” I dictated.

Oliver Stansted pulled out a legal pad, clicked the top of a ballpoint pen, and placed them both on the table.

“Did she tell you that?” I asked.

“Well, things have changed for her since then.”

“Have they?”

“Like I said, she formed this organization--”

“--right, you said. Mothers Against Drunk Driving--”

“--and she no longer believes, as you say, that the death penalty is the most profound form of punishment.”

Mr. Stansted, refusing to acknowledge me, continued as if he had planned this speech for days and would get through it no matter the cost.

“She now believes it to be archaic, barbaric, and contrary to any goal that can be found in your country’s history and purpose.” Oliver stopped speaking for a full fifteen seconds before he continued. “Are you following?”

“Oh yes. Perfectly. But what if I believe in the death penalty? What if I actually believe in ‘an eye for an eye’?”

He stared directly back at me as if he believed I was lying. As if his beliefs were superior to mine, merely because he had an accent and, once upon a time, I had a tan.

“You don’t really believe that, do you, Noa?” He folded his arms, the right on top of his left. “I know you don’t actually believe that.”

“Mr. Stansted, come on. I’m not looking for sympathy.”

“There are so few statistics from appeals for executions that have been turned down at this level--at the point of clemency, the absolute last moment to save a life,” he pleaded. “We have to do it. We need to do it. Whether it works or not, we need to know the pattern of the governor at this point in the process. If groups like MAD and others can’t see and document patterns--the patterns of the judges and juries for sending inmates to death row, the patterns for the appellate courts for affirming those sentences, and now this final pattern of governors who deny final requests for clemency--it will be harder to present a proper image to the public of how egregious this system is. Without those statistics, the government is never going to realize what sort of laws it perpetuates. This barbarism, this ancient form of punishment that offers no deterrence whatsoever to . . .”
Elizabeth L. Silver

About Elizabeth L. Silver

Elizabeth L. Silver - The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Photo © Marion Ettlinger

ELIZABETH L. SILVER grew up in New Orleans and Dallas and currently lives in Los Angeles.  She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in England, and a JD from Temple University Beasley School of Law. She has taught ESL in Costa Rica, writing and literature at several universities in Philadelphia, and worked as a research attorney for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is her first novel.

Praise

Praise

BookPage’s 10 Notable Books for June: “A rare thriller that will be equally appealing for beach reading or book club discussion…riveting legal drama.” —BookPage

“Like the narrators in recent best-sellers Gone Girl and The Dinner, Noa is endlessly complex and impossible to trust. Don't try to outsmart her — you can't. Just let her manipulate, shock, and maybe even move you. A-” Entertainment Weekly

“Bracing and combative… a classic slow-burn, with Ms. Silver spinning the web…and masterfully revealing the threads that connect [the characters] to each other and to the crime…The novel proceeds to its heart-wrenching conclusion by a series of feints and betrayals that would make Gillian Flynn stand and applaud.” Wall Street Journal

“Fantastic first novel…Silver makes us think critically about capital punishment without ever getting up on a soapbox or turning her great yarn into a civics lesson. As this unstoppable story bounds end-over-end to “X-Day,” we are reminded that everybody is guilty of something. Forgiveness, freedom and peace are rare commodities, and Silver keeps us guessing about whether or not we will find them here.” Washington Post

“I cannot recall a debut novel written more skillfully than The Execution of Noa P. Singleton… It works as a first-rate murder mystery…Suffice it to say that every development harbors surprises, but surprises that seem plausible… Apart from the plotting, why is this novel superb? In large part because Silver is a master at delineating the lines between legal guilt and moral guilt. Is Singleton a murderer according to the law? Maybe, maybe not. Is Singleton a murderer according to societal codes of behavior? Almost certainly… In terms of literary style, Silver reels off memorable sentence after memorable sentence. I look forward to reading her next book.”Dallas Morning News
 
“In lucid, fast-moving prose, Elizabeth Silver, who comes well-equipped for the task with a JD and an MFA, constructs an intricate and thoughtful psychological thriller.” —The San Francisco Chronicle

“A sophisticated debut novel… Silver deftly handles dark and weighty topics without ever sacrificing a literary attention to detail… But Silver is aiming for something more than good writing, satisfyingly complicated characters or a page-turning mystery… The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a not just a novel, but a mirror upheld to a fragile, human criminal justice system.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“In this grippingly off-kilter thriller, a young woman sits on death row after being convicted of murder until a high-powered attorney – the victim’s mother – intervenes, leaving everyone to wonder why.” O, The Oprah Magazine

“Silver is a talent to watch, a writer able to conjure odd and savagely beautiful images from the mundane.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer

“A tense and multi-layered first novel…Noa’s powerful voice, full of attitude and alienation, commands attention throughout the book…In Noa, Silver has created an articulate and intelligent protagonist who asks us to revisit our existing notions of victimhood.” —The Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Gripping and introspective first novel…The book revolves around the “why”…It is an emotion-packed style, similar to that used by Lionel Shriver in her acclaimed novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, as the reader tries to come to grips with how much weight should be given to mitigating circumstances in determining guilt or innocence.” BookPage

“What does one look for in a good novel? Fascinating characters, a terrific plot, depth of thought? Silver delivers all of these and more. Her prose is paradoxically both unflinching and poetic. She creates magic with unsparing truth. Is there innocence disguised within guilt? Is redemption possible? Can punishment truly fit the crime?” —Federal Lawyer

“The wonderful contradiction of the antiheroine is that she cannot help but narrate her story unreliably, most of all to herself…Noa's voice is so pungent and potent as she describes the facts and pooh-poohs the theories of her criminality… We realize the tragic flaw both women share, which is that protecting our loved ones produces greater catastrophe than letting people be. The effect blurs our ability to delineate between criminal and victim, shattering the ‘mucous-thin terrain where most of life resides.’…The antiheroines of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton and The Silent Wife may make it difficult for some readers to like them. But their deeds, however monstrous, are true to their natural character, and command reader attention by cementing their respect—a harder road with a more rewarding payoff.” The New Republic
 
“Silver gives Noa a voice powerful enough to make us want to know the answers…In Elizabeth Silver's debut novel, a sympathetic anti-heroine reveals a story that is ultimately tragic, yet flecked with dark humor.” Shelf Awareness

“Compelling debut…A clever examination of the nature of destiny and the choices we make, this thought-provoking book is reminiscent of John Grisham’s The Confession in its exploration of the death penalty. Silver has successfully written a suspenseful, absorbing tale. This is a special treat for mystery fans.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“A searing debut…This devastating read stands less as a polemic against the death penalty than as a heartbreaking brief for the preciousness of life.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Silver has written a darkly witty, acerbic jigsaw puzzle of a first novel about legal versus moral culpability…[and] explores convolutions of guilt and innocence beyond the law’s narrow scope with a sharpness and attention to detail that can be unnerving but demands attention.” Kirkus (starred review)

“Vividly written debut novel...Silver definitely delivers a thought-provoking examination of the criminal-justice system, providing a clear-eyed view of the artificial theatrics that dominate criminal trials and a heartfelt look at both grief and remorse. An intriguing debut from a writer to watch.” Booklist

“This is a beautiful and consuming tale revolving around two women who are both torn, both guilty and both looking for some kind of redemption. Elizabeth Silver has set the bar very high for herself with this outstanding debut novel.” Crimespree magazine

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton kept me awake long after I had put it down. Halfway through this gripping novel, in which ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence’ change positions more than once, I thought I was so clever I might know where this story was headed. But I was proved wrong in a way I never could have imagined. Congratulations to Elizabeth L. Silver for a fantastic first book that will keep readers awake all over the world.” —Herman Koch, author of The Dinner

“The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is mortal war between ferocious women, told with a fiery and merciless lyricism so beautiful it hurts.” —Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love
 
“The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is an intense and gripping novel of betrayal and guilt that forces readers to confront their convictions and the limitations of their capacity for empathy. Elizabeth L. Silver is a gifted new writer, and her novel is certain to be a smash.” —Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother
 
“In The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Elizabeth Silver puts the human factor front and center, to devastating effect.  Guilt and innocence, capital punishment, the living hell of death row, all these get their due, but at the heart of it is us, the ongoing mystery of what lies inside our souls.” —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

“Smart, cool, articulate, funny, and savvy—Noa P. Singleton dares you to put her story down.” —Rosamund Lupton, author of Sister

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is an almost weirdly gripping thriller, presented in teasing slow motion. Author Elizabeth L. Silver displays a wicked genius for sucking us into a black maelstrom of nebulous uncertainty, making our need to find out the truth all the more urgent. Believe the hype: this is quite the irresistible page-turner.” —BookReporter.com

“A thoughtful book which keeps turning itself upside down with new revelations about the protagonist, antagonist and several other characters. The book is mostly narrated by Noa, but the chapters end with letters written by the victim's mother to her deceased daughter. The trial scenes were fascinating, and the selection of the jury was hilarious. But best of all, the book made you think, not only about the nature of the death penalty but about the judicial system as well. Ms. Silver managed to write a fascinating book, told by an unreliable narrator which manages to tell a fascinating story in shades of gray. There are no good guys or bad guys in the story, everyone has their own demons within them, trying to make things right in their own head.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Elizabeth L. Silver is a writer to watch out for, one of great scope and passion. Here she tackles a bold topic with skill, compassion and verve.” —Jill Dawson, author of Orange and Whitbred nominated Fred & Edie, The Great Lover, and Lucky Bunny

“Exploring good and evil in a thought provoking yet entertaining fashion, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver reads surprisingly quickly. With murder, the death penalty and the quality of justice called into question, morality becomes an increasingly slippery slope.” Campus Circle

“Truly mesmerising…a remarkable novel by a young American writer…As well as functioning with great authority on the narrative level, this is a book with something to say — but Silver never imports ideological points at the expense of gripping storytelling.” —Barry Forshaw, Crime Time

“Haunting…Silver writes poetically with an adeptness that marks her out as a debut author to watch…A genuinely compulsive novel that can't be set aside until the last page is turned. Noa P might not be a literary heroine you will fall in love with, but you will find it hard to let her go.” Express (UK)

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