Evening's Empire

The Story of My Father's Murder

Zachary Lazar

Little, Brown: 228 pp., $24.99

A child whose parent is murdered grows up with a tangle of mysteries. What kind of person was this father, whom the son barely remembers? Why was he killed? What's the real story -- the facts, yes, but also the bigger story, the one that has to do with trying to figure out the meaning of something senseless?

Zachary Lazar was 6 when his father was shot in the stairwell of a parking garage in Phoenix. Ed Lazar, an accountant, had worked for respected firms; but he was also associated with a man named Ned Warren, who at the time of the murder in 1975 was beginning to be referred to in newspaper headlines as "the godfather of land fraud in Arizona." A grand jury was investigating, and Ed was testifying. The manner of the shooting was clearly professional.

Acknowledging that he will never know the entire truth of his father's life and death, Lazar employs "a kind of conjuration" to tell the story -- a mixture of facts and frankly imagined fictional scenes. That's a novelist's choice, which makes sense, since this is Lazar's first work of nonfiction, although tellingly, his novel "Sway" employed a similar strategy, blending stories about the Rolling Stones, filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil to evoke the underside of the 1960s.

Here, he portrays his father as essentially a smart and ethical but frustrated young man who saw others make enormous fortunes buying and selling land. The real estate business in Arizona was huge and alluring. A lot of it was also phony.

Vast tracts of unbuildable land -- craggy, full of canyons -- were parceled out on paper, given bucolic-sounding names and marketed to unsuspecting investors: old people looking for a warm place to retire, U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan. Land commissioners were bribed to look the other way. In addition to the actual customers, sales companies invented scores of fake customers with names from phone books, concocted fake mortgages for them and sold bundles of these bogus loans to other investors. The money passed through a succession of companies in ways that changed from scam to scam but were all masterminded by Warren.

When Ed went into business with Warren in 1969, he was aware that the other man had a shady past, but he'd been assured that Warren had cleaned up his act. And Ed, seeing that there was money to be made, believed what he wanted to believe. His son writes: "What ends up being called 'greed' seldom looks like greed at the time; it looks like common sense, ambition."

That sentence touches on one of the big themes of "Evening's Empire" -- the writer's uneasy quest to understand how his father got mixed up in something criminal. Perhaps an even bigger question, additionally poignant because it is never quite articulated: Was the father a good guy or a bad guy?

The answer seems to be some of both. Certainly, he was not an avid criminal participant. But neither was he an innocent bystander. There's a brief, painful scene in which Ed sits down with his father, Louis, during the grand jury investigation, to admit that an envelope he'd asked him to deliver to the Arizona Real Estate Commissioner's Office had contained a bribe. Lazar dramatizes the difficult emotion of the scene by not dramatizing it -- he sets it up and then cuts away.

This brings us to the writing itself, the style and the storytelling.

The style is gorgeous -- understated, precise, atmospheric. Like a pointillist painter, Lazar gives us vivid dots that are all the more powerful because we have to do the work of connecting them. There's the peculiarly tawdry glamour of 1960s Arizona: the white shoes with silver chains, the newly rich driving around the desert in Rolls-Royces, the business meetings next to the swimming pool, the urbane ex-convict with both a wife and a mistress living in his house. There's the small time masquerading as the big time: a sales barbecue where the guest of honor is actor Cesar Romero, flown in and paid $1,000 to mingle with prospective buyers and make the enterprise appear trustworthy.

When it comes to the storytelling, however, the pointillist technique is less successful; there are just too many dots. There are a lot of scenes of people having drinks together, or passing bad checks, or playing tennis -- people and situations that never really become important. Major and minor figures are given equal weight. As readers, we can have a hard time remembering who's who and figuring out which narrative threads we ought to follow.

Yet despite the deliberately (and perhaps ironically) objective storytelling, this is a personal story, and it's in the sections where the personal is acknowledged that "Evening's Empire" has its greatest power. Researching his family's past, Lazar travels to Phoenix and drives to a development on which his father worked. No houses were ever built. Driving around this nowhereland, he finds "a street there, as I knew there would be, called Zachary Lane. My mother had always told me about Zachary Lane, about how my father, in the early days of his land company, had named a street after me."

Lazar also goes to the parking garage where his father was killed. His description -- as well as his dramatization of the hiring of the hit men and their dopey, banal conversations -- is moving because of the restraint. We understand without being told that the arrangements with the hit men were just as confused as those of the real estate businesses: people paying people to pay other people to commit murder, so that the guys who pulled the trigger had no idea why or even for whom they were doing the job.

Looking through news clippings pertaining to the murder, Lazar feels he is reading "a baroquely plotted crime novel . . . a cacophony of names and faces, facts and suppositions, and in the silent gaps, as if in some occult code, the story of what had happened."

That is a good description of "Evening's Empire." It's a spotty, murky, haunting story, told by a son who understands it better than his father ever could have.

Wickersham's most recent book, "The Suicide Index: Putting My Father's Death in Order," was a 2008 National Book Award finalist.