JOURNAL OF THE DEAD by Jason Kersten


A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert
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Debut about death in a remote desert canyon and the subsequent murder investigation and trial.

Raffi Kodikian and David Coughlin, two close friends driving to California from Boston, stopped to camp for the night in Rattlesnake Canyon, New Mexico, and made the fatal mistake of not bringing enough water. When they became lost and wandered about for a few days, they experienced the full brunt of dehydration. As Kodikian told it, Coughlin ultimately asked his friend to kill him and put him out of his torment. Kodikian complied, assuming that he himself would be dead shortly thereafter. But rangers found the survivor, who had to face a murder charge. (As the prosecutor said, “You don't get to kill someone in the state of New Mexico just because they ask you to.”) Expanding on an article published by Maxim in 2000, Kersten crafts the unlucky duo’s story into a vivid text, despite Kodikian’s decision not to grant him an interview. The author provides all manner of historical background for the main characters and the landscapes they passed through. He spells out all the legal ramifications, including forays into involuntary intoxication and the euthanasia defense, and his courtroom scenes are elegant condensations. His narrative builds with the same impetus that the incident developed as it evolved from a small newswire clip to a national story, yet the tone remains steady and even-keeled. Kersten lays before readers the elements of suspicion—possible conflict over a woman, a burnt sleeping bag, a can of uneaten beans—that led some to conclude it wasn’t really a mercy killing and explains with clarity the reasons that propelled the judge to hand down a sentence of 15 years suspended to 2, though Kodikian's reputation will be forever tattered from the case’s tabloid treatment.

Quiet literary journalism that gives these grim circumstances the eerie, twilight quality of tragedy. (8-page b&w photo insert, not seen)

Pub Date: Aug. 8th, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-018470-1
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2003