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‘Notes on an Execution’ explores the psyche of a serial killer and the women who shaped him

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I read Danya Kukafka’s debut, “Girl in Snow,” several years ago and honestly can’t remember much about it. That’s not a problem with her new novel, which I won’t soon forget.

“Notes on an Execution” focuses on Ansel Packer, a death row inmate who has been convicted of murdering multiple women and is scheduled to be executed in 12 hours. Everything about this book is propulsive and mesmerizing — an atmospheric work of literary suspense that grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go. Given the choice and fewer obligations, I could easily have devoured it in one sitting.

The story toggles between two timelines: the day of Ansel’s execution and his sprawling backstory. It’s told through a kaleidoscope of women — a mother, a sister, a homicide detective and a prison guard — whose lives are linked to and affected by Ansel. Kukafka paints a chilling portrait of an American serial killer, but also our cultural obsession with violence.

As the clock ticks down toward Ansel’s execution, several characters examine the impact of nature and nurture, and whether biology or our environment shapes who we are. What makes someone evil? And could there be those tendencies in all of us? At one point Hazel, the twin sister of Ansel’s wife, reflects on the vast ripple effect of Ansel’s behavior and actions: “It seemed insane, almost laughable, that one person — Ansel, a single man, so deeply average — had created a chasm so colossal.”

The novel also forces us to come to terms with the death penalty, and to consider whether government-sanctioned killing is really any different than the murder it seeks to punish. Kukafka’s well-developed and exquisitely written glimpses into Ansel’s mind are disturbing and profoundly sad. In the end, we know what happened but wonder about what could have been.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.