If you are a true crime reading aficionado who likes your hard-boiled plots one way and one way only, Love and Death in the Sunshine State may not be for you.
For one thing, the whodunnit is pretty clear from the outset. For another, it’s a little soft. The first half of Cutter Wood’s book is mostly about him having a ‘who am I’ crisis as a recent college graduate and wannabe writer. It’s also about his relationship with a girl named Erin who he had a crush on in Grade 7 and reunited with and fell for as an adult. Sweet. Not true crime-y at all, especially since he’s the author, not the murderer.
Anyway, in the midst of identity crisis, Wood takes off for Florida and stays in what sounds like a super seedy hotel on Anna Maria, an island off Florida’s coast about seven miles long and pretty much below sea-level. A few months later, back in Iowa (talk about visiting all the American must-sees), he gets a newspaper clipping. There was an arson at that same Anna Maria hotel. Weirder still, one of the hotel owners, a woman named Sabine Musil-Buehler, has gone missing, presumed dead due to the amount of blood found in her recovered car.
Intrigued and sucked in, Wood heads back to Florida and starts digging into the case. There are three main suspects: the woman’s boyfriend, her husband, and the guy found with her car. Wood tries to get to learn about Musil-Buehler through the people who knew her. He befriends the boyfriend, back in jail for another crime, and tries to reconstruct what happens to relationships to cause them to end with people falling out of love and right into violence.
Police conclude pretty quickly that Sabine’s boyfriend, William Cumber, killed Sabine. Eventually, he even admits it.
The investigation into Sabine’s murder inexplicably gets tied up in Wood’s relationship and life. I say inexplicably, because although Wood feels they are intertwined and mixed up with each other, I had a hard time as a reader identifying those parallels. Why would Wood want to align with dysfunction? Yes, Sabine was in a relationship with a man she loved and eventually their love deteriorated to bad communication, falling out of love and eventually murder, but Wood’s own story arch is not nearly as dramatic. I wasn’t there, and I didn’t feel what Wood felt, but his own personal story vanishes about halfway through the book and the pieces are never neatly woven together. As an exploration on how love changes, Sabine’s story stands on its own—and as a cautionary tale. Wood does examine how relationships slowly change and dissolve, but I’m not sure we need his story. In the last half or so of the book, the author imagines what happened to lead Sabine and Cumber to their bitter finale.
Netflix has done a lot to convince us that murder—and murderers—are intriguing and complicated and never straightforward. The best thing Wood’s book does is dispense with any of that. Cumber was an under-educated man who enjoyed reading Twilight books in prison and whose grasp on grammar was mediocre at best. He drank a lot, he lived in a relatively impoverished area, and when his girlfriend tried to leave him, he beat her. And she died. Then he buried her. Horrible, tragic and a far too familiar a tale of love gone wrong.