The Rag and Bone Shop is the last book Robert Cormier wrote before his death, and it was published posthumously. I’ll admit I’m not a big Cormier fan, although the last time I read one of his books, I was the age of the target audience. Several decades haven’t really made me more of a fan.
A seven year old girl has been found dead of blunt force trauma. A twelve year old boy, Jason, was the last person to see her alive, so he becomes the prime suspect. Needing a confession due to a total lack of physical evidence, the police call in Trent, a top interrogator who always gets a confession.
The book goes into detail about the methods that Trent uses to get his confessions, which are more about results than they are about truth (although frequently those two overlap, it seems).
The topics brought up in the novel are timely and important, but I have several issues with the book that make me wonder about its suitability for middle grades. I’m pretty certain my thirteen year old daughter would absolutely hate it, like to the point of wanting to hurl it out the window. The book got a lot of critical acclaim and is included on a lot of “Best Book” type lists—I wonder how much of that was because Cormier died before it was published?
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
WARNING: Sometimes I can talk about a book without giving everything away. This review contains ALL the spoilers, including the shocking ending.
The book opens with a fairly graphic murder when a seventeen year old breaks into a house, steals some guns, goes upstairs in what he thinks is an empty house, finds a couple asleep in their bed, shoots them both just because he can and the guns make him feel powerful. Then he walks into the hall, sees their ten year old son, and shoots the boy as a mercy, because he doesn’t want the boy to find his murdered parents. The story doesn’t tie into our overall novel except that it’s Trent who gets the confession from the murderer.
The main murder is of Alicia, a seven year old girl. Because Jason was friends with her, we get to know a decent amount about her. There are details about how and where her body is found. She’s been hit in the head with something, then her body was arranged to look like she was lying peacefully, and then covered with debris which made it harder to find her. As an adult, I found the details about child murder disturbing. I think a lot of younger readers may have problems with it.
Sex and Sexual Assault
The account of the first murder included the murderer looking at the wife in her blue nightgown and briefly imagining what she would look like without it because he’s only seen pictures of naked women. However, that’s kind of a distraction, so he just shoots her husband first, then shoots her through her screaming mouth. I’m not sure what the point was of including the thoughts about removing the nightgown. It’s disconcerting that this is what goes through the kid’s brain before he coldly murders these people, and it also sort of implies that natural curiosity about nudity is something only twisted people think about.
Alicia was not raped or assaulted, which we’re explicitly told when the body was found. During the interrogation, Trent still goes down that route, asking Jason if he was ever attracted to the seven year old victim. Jason is pretty grossed out by that whole line of reasoning, and after a few paragraphs, Trent drops it and moves on.
While I think rape and sexual assault are really important topics to discuss with kids, there’s not enough here to really talk about. These are details you would expect in an adult crime novel where adults would immediately wonder about sexual assault with Alicia’s murder, but they feel out of place in one for younger readers, especially since there isn’t enough here to discuss in any meaningful way.
I feel I should point out that all the murders and everything else I’ve talked about so far takes place in about the first 10-15 pages of the book. It’s a lot to get through to get to the main part of the novel.
Separate from the murders, through a flashback we learn that Jason saw the school bully, Bobo, push a girl up against a locker and pinch her breast. The girl didn’t tell anyone, and Jason kept his mouth shut for fear of embarrassing her. However, when Bobo pushed Jason lightly later, Jason laid into him and knocked him over. That attack is seen as unprovoked, because no one knows about the sexual assault. Later, this “unprovoked” attack is brought up during the interrogation as a history of violence.
The whole police department works together to set up the best situation for Trent’s interrogation to result in a confession. Jason is brought into the station as a witness, with no hint at all that he’s a suspect. His mother, thinking it’s just some routine questions, lets him go alone because his sister has a doctor’s appointment and it would be inconvenient for her to go with him. The police tell Trent he probably has three hours before the mother gets suspicious and comes down to check on her son—he’d better work within that window so there’s no adult looking out for this kid. Jason is one of a group of kids brought in for questioning, so he won’t suspect that he’s being considered as more than just a witness. The room he’s questioned in is made hot and crowded—they moved in an extra desk to make it even more crowded. He’s offered a drink to make sure he realizes he’s thirsty, and then not brought anything to drink. Trent says certain things to ensure they end up on the audiotape because those particular words and phrases will be useful later. All of these things are planned and carefully orchestrated, all to get a confession from someone Trent is increasingly certain is innocent.
Even though Trent is pretty much totally convinced that Jason is innocent and that this recording is going to get thrown out as evidence anyway, he goes in for the kill. He talks about how Jason is the only suspect and that confessing is the only way to save himself from being prosecuted as an adult and sent to prison for the rest of his life. Things will go so much better if he confesses. He may even get to go home to his family tonight. Jason caves, even though he’s totally innocent.
Trent is depressed because of what he does for a living. Getting the confessions is exhausting for many reasons. His wife, now dead from a car accident, questioned what he was becoming as he got better at interrogations. A female police officer that he finds attractive is disgusted by him because he gets a confession from an innocent kid. Part of why he sticks with getting a confession from Jason is because a senator wants a confession and promises to help Trent move up if he gets that confession. His reasons are definitely not about truth and justice.
After Trent gets the incorrect confession, his professional life is pretty much destroyed. He’ll never be an interrogator again. This is half of the ending that feels totally and utterly contrived and unrealistic to me—he did the job he was brought in to do, and he did it well. I have trouble believing that several police departments would come down on him for this. His personal guilt and depression I understand, but I don’t think his professional life would take such a hit for this.
As mentioned before, Jason shoved a bully who wasn’t being held accountable for his actions. Although the principal tells him that this kind of violence solves nothing, Jason’s experience shows otherwise. Bobo starts leaving him alone, and otherwise Jason’s life changes very little. None of his classmates seem to care either way.
Jason admits to liking adventure movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Trent jumps on this as evidence that Jason is obsessed with violent movies (really?!?) and has trouble discerning reality from fantasy.
After Jason is forced into confessing to something he knows he never could have done, he’s totally traumatized. He can’t stand feeling closed up after the long day in the small, hot interrogation room, so one day he opens all the windows in the house even though it’s pouring rain outside, so things get drenched and ruined. He’s taking pills to help cope, but they’re not really helping. What bothers him most is wondering how he could have confessed to something he didn’t do unless somewhere inside him he thinks he might actually be capable of doing it. Alone in the house, he kind of cracks. And here’s the second half of the ending that feels totally and utterly contrived to me. Tortured by the memories of the interrogation and being manipulated into confessing to such violence, Jason decides he might as well prove that he is capable of such violence. He decides to go with a victim who deserves it, and he happens to know that Bobo would be at the Rec Center right now. He takes a butcher knife from the drawer and goes to wait across the street from the Rec Center. End of book.
Other Random Issues
Trent’s wife was killed in a car accident, and he’s still grieving for her. Things were left on bad terms between them, and he will never have a chance to resolve it. One thing that bothers me—the accident was a minor one, a freak thing where the seatbelt and the airbag conspired to kill her. Sure, I could totally look at it as a metaphor for other themes in the book where a system designed to find justice and protect the innocent does exactly the opposite. But it’s a one-off line that isn’t explored, there’s no textual hint that it’s intended as a metaphor, and unless you have decades of finding metaphor in everything like I do, it’s just a case where she’d have been better off without her seatbelt and airbag. I really don’t want my soon-to-be-driving kids to have any excuse to ever drive without a seatbelt. This seems like an awful detail to include casually in a book for younger readers.
While there are a lot of interesting issues about the ethics of interrogation techniques, it’s all wrapped in such a problematic package. My biggest issue is that a lot of these problems aren’t even brought up in ways that make them easy to discuss. The ending feels so very contrived, almost too extreme to be worth even really talking about. There are interesting ideas here, things that we should be talking about with kids, but mostly in this book I saw potential conversations lost to either being too glossed over or too extreme. Older readers, who can bring more life experience to some of the glossed over issues, might find this book thought provoking. However, I hope there are better books out there for discussing our justice system with younger readers. Anyone have any suggestions I should look into?
The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier
Published in 2001 by Dell-Laurel Leaf
Read a copy borrowed from my daughter’s school