Jim Lehrer is probably best known as the executive producer and anchor of PBS’s NewsHour. However, what many people (myself included until recently) might not know is that Lehrer has made a respectable second career for himself as a mystery writer. When I discovered this, I was intrigued and eagerly began his newest book, Flying Crows.
Inspired by real events, Flying Crows is the story of Birdie Carlucci, a young man who is sentenced to Somerset Insane Asylum in the 1930s. Birdie is immediately befriended by Josh, a veteran at Somerset who tries to help out other patients who have the same problems he has. Both Birdie and Josh are victims of what would probably now be called post-traumatic stress syndrome. They both saw something awful and it drove them crazy. Birdie’s tragedy occurred at Union Station, a famous train station in Kansas. And it is at Union Station that Birdie is discovered over sixty years later by a policeman named Randy Benton.
Benton is intrigued by Birdie’s story of living in Union Station for most of his life, and he begins investigating. His investigation will take him back to the 1930s, back to Somerset, and back into the mind of a troubled old man who may or may not have ever really been crazy. Split into chapters that occur in present time, in the 1930s when Birdie first arrived at Somerset, and in the intervening years when Birdie lived at Union Station, the book gives us both history, personal narratives and current investigative techniques to solve the mystery of Birdie Carlucci.
The plot of this book is interesting, especially if you think about it being based on true events. Taking a look at the conditions in a 1930s insane asylum is terrifying and makes the reader realize how far we’ve come. Unfortunately, for this book to truly work, the reader must identify with or feel compassion for either Birdie or Randy — and that turns out to be difficult to accomplish. All of the characters in this book are flat and come off as devices to forward the plot. None of them ever become real or take on their own personalities. Without likeable (or even real) characters, Flying Crows falls far short of being the "touching novel of lost souls" that its book jacket claims.