Monday, August 20, 2007

In My Father's Name



In My Father’s Name: A Family, A Town, A Murder
By Mark Arax

Pocket Books $14.95, paper
ISBN 0-671-01002-6

One of the hallmarks of the high school English classroom is that at some point during the school year, the teacher must assign a research paper. Even when such a paper is assigned by another department like history, the responsibility to teach the techniques and format of research always falls on the English teachers.

Students usually respond to this assignment by searching for sources to plagiarize. In fact, I do not think I have ever assigned a research paper where someone, either intentionally or accidentally, has not plagiarized material. The thing is, that is one task a researcher must do: gather existing information and summarize it, quoting the important bits for the reader to comprehend. Research writing is, in a way, legal plagiarism.

I like to teach research writing using the journalistic format of the five Ws and the H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Because journalism makes a good model for students to follow, I had them read Mark Arax’s book, In My Father’s Name for summer reading.

Arax, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of The King of California, writes in this book about going undercover to research the unsolved murder of his father, Fresno bar owner Ara Arax. Ara Arax was killed in January of 1972 when the younger Arax was fifteen years old. At the time, the boy swore he would find the men responsible for the crime and bring them to justice. Later in life, he forsakes becoming a lawyer to attend Columbia’s graduate program in journalism leading to a career with the Baltimore Evening Sun, the former paper of H.L. Mencken, and then The Los Angeles Times.

After years as an investigative reporter, Arax asked for a leave from the paper and moved back to Fresno under an assumed name. There, he began to research the unsolved story of his father’s execution by two white men on a Sunday night in front of a single witness, the bartender, Linda Lewis.

Arax reads the case files from the police and other investigative agencies on the federal level. He struggles with the necessary objectivity that a good reporter should have. He tries to view witnesses and crime scene details without prejudice, but often in this struggle, he fails, only to take a step back, resolve to think more clearly, and relaunch the investigation. It is a slippery slope on which he travels, with many false roads and blind leads.

He decides to operate from a base of assumptions: One, his father’s death was not a random event. Two, the murder was tied to the business of the bar. Three, someone close to his father betrayed him. Four, the murder was precipitated by a change in his father’s relationship with someone at the bar, such as an employee. And five, the best evidence could be found by following his father’s movements during the six months prior to the murders.

“One of the first rules of investigative reporting was that you never busted down a door without first trying to find the key to unlock it,” Arax writes. This is one of many aphorisms about journalism that Arax shares with his readers. He completely and totally immerses himself in the research, using notes he took back when the crime occurred all the way to the present. He spares no stone or shoe leather in his search. “Journalistic training had taught me to question chance and coincidence and heed the pattern of conforming events,” he writes. “But it also imparted a healthy mistrust of conspiracies.” Arax quickly discards the robbery theory, as no money was taken during the commission of the crime. He begins, more and more, to circle in on drugs.

Arax finds that his father had invested in a second bar just prior to his death. The owner of the second bar was involved in a drug deal with two other men. All three were good friends with Arax’s uncle. As his research progresses, he finds evidence that his father wanted to stop the drug deal, and was further enraged because the money he gave the second bar owner for his piece of the pie was funneled directly to the drug mules to move the product. This spurred Arax to go to the police and try to stop the drug deal. What he did not know, and his son discovered, was that the police were corrupt and probably in on the deal, or at least being paid funds to protect the drug shipment from discovery.

Arax never finds one hundred percent proof of the three drug dealers’ complicity in his father’s murder, but he comes very close. Of course, he learns important things about himself and his life in the process. This is foreshadowed when he takes a leave of absence from the Times. Fellow journalist Pete King tells him, “Remember, Mark. This is not about solving a crime. It is about solving a life.”

“I’m not sure I can accept anything less on this story,” Arax responds. “I’m not sure I can ever let go without knowing all the answers.”

In the end, his tenacity is rewarded. He comes to some solid conclusions about who murdered his father and why, as well as determining why he became a journalist all those years ago instead of a lawyer. He discovers that his Uncle Navo may have had something to do with the murder, a family secret. “You’re a lot like him sometimes, you know,” the uncle tells him. “Except you’re smarter than he was.”

Mark Arax offers us a thorough, well-researched story about a murder. Along the way, he tells the story of Fresno, his family’s history (as well as Armenian history), and his own travels to become a journalist. We get the five Ws and the H, and so much more. He shows us what it takes to be a good reporter, an astute researcher. He demonstrates how to tell a truthful story. He provides evidence and details to support his assertions. He does, in short, all the things a good journalist should do.

And it is a gripping, intense journey.