“Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime,” by Cutter Wood

Cutter Wood

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Even amid high crime statistics and several infamously grisly Florida murders, the 2008 killing at the center of Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018) still drew national attention, including a 2016 feature on NBC’s Dateline. But it wasn’t the notoriety so much as a personal connection—however brief—that spurred Cutter Wood, the author of Love and Death, to the point of obsessive investigation, culminating in his book. And it’s a fine book.

Creative nonfiction at its best, Love and Death blends true crime and personal memoir into an imminently readable story, capable of sustaining suspense even though the bare facts are quickly known or suspected.

Those bare facts are that the victim in Love and Death, Sabine Musil-Buehler, and her estranged husband owned a hotel on Anna Maria Island, some forty-miles south of Tampa. Known for her soft heart and love of animals, Sabine also engaged in an affair with an ex-con, recently out of prison and still on parole. Sabine went missing in 2008. Someone stole her car. When law enforcement recovered and impounded the vehicle, it contained a good deal of blood. Then twelve days after she disappeared, her hotel burned. Sabine’s husband Tom Buehler, her lover William Cumber, and Robert Corona, the hapless, petty criminal who stole her car, were all initially suspects.

Detectives used cadaver dogs and backhoes to dig up sand on the beaches, looking for a body they never found until Sabine’s skeleton was unearthed beneath a metal canopy on Anna Maria Island in 2015.

That’s the bare bones version of Sabine’s murder. But in Cutter’s talented hands and mind, the basic factual story takes on personality, complexity, intrigue, and a certain richness in much the same way Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood pulled readers into the emotional heart of things well beyond the journalistic actualities.

Wood’s own fascination with Sabine’s story started with a trip he took to Anna Maria Island after his college graduation “had left [him] in a state of highly animated confusion.” He describes Sabine’s hotel this way:

[S]mall and dreary and bright. A few pale-yellow buildings squatted in the sun while above them a handful of spindly palms nodded in conference. In a cage by the office door, a green parrot carried on its endless and solitary conversation.

After his vacation on Anna Maria, Wood left with no intention of returning to the island or to Florida. All that changed some months later when his mother sent him a clipping from the local island newspaper about a fire at the hotel where Wood had stayed. He was struck by “[a] grainy color photograph [that] showed a few palms outlined against a mass of fire.”

Wood returned to Anna Maria, began his own investigation into Sabine’s disappearance and presumed murder, and was drawn steadily into the personalities and complexities of the case. At the same time, that is 2008, Wood was, in his words, “launching myself into a relationship with [Erin,] the woman who would eventually become my wife.” His personal story is woven into the account of Sabine and her affair with Cumber, her ex-con lover. Given Wood’s self-described “daily struggle to simply be pleasant” within his own relationship, he was driven to “learn how a relationship [such as Cumber and Sabine’s] spins to pieces in such a dramatic and fatal fashion.” He describes Love and Death, thus, as “an attempt, via narrative, to understand the impulse to hurt, or even destroy, the ones we love.”

In his attempt to understand, Wood also includes snippets of his days as an MFA student in the University of Iowa’s acclaimed creative writing program. There’s some sly humor in his depiction of teaching undergrad students:

As a graduate student fresh with ambition, I was paid to teach these young people how to write, and I had run headlong into the courageous but monosyllabic and punctuation-averse world of late-teenaged communications. The inclination to throw up one’s hands was strong. …One [other graduate assistant teacher] had assembled a list of topics [no grandparents, vacations or sex] for his creative writing students that—due to their tendency to descend most rapidly into monotony, self-aggrandizement, and cliché—he had forbidden.

However insightful and well-written and even with the occasional flair of dry wit, these personal narratives intrude on the more interesting story of Sabine, her husband, her lover, and the search for her body and murderer. Wood writes exceptionally well, but his personal story is never as captivating as the crime story. His book is most engaging when he is discussing Sabine’s story and his own increasing obsession with her and the murder. As Wood digs deeper, he begins to dream about Sabine. He meets and interviews anyone who will speak with him that has any connection to Sabine or the crime. He forms a cautious friendship with Sabine’s lover, Cumber, who is once more back in prison. Wood not only meets with Cumber several times, but supplies him with books to read.

Cumber, who was in prison when Sabine first became aware of him, had decided to leave town shortly after Sabine disappeared and her motel burned. He was still on parole from a prison term for arson as he fled Anna Maria and Sabine’s investigation. When he was picked up by a state trooper for driving without a license, he ended up back in a state prison for violation of parole.

By then, Corona, the hapless car thief, had become little more than “a comic side note to the homicide investigation.” Many still considered the husband a viable suspect. After all, he had caught his wife cheating with Cumber. But law enforcement increasingly focused on Cumber, and at the time of his arrest for violation of parole, he was their key suspect.

Wood delves into Cumber as a person in a manner reminiscent of Capote in his groundbreaking In Cold Blood, but Wood doesn’t dig quite as deep, nor nearly as compellingly as Capote. Still, he creates a vivid, gripping portrait of Cumber as a child of dysfunction who becomes a petty criminal and then devolves into something worse.

Despite a bit of dodgy pacing within the courtship/personal memoirs portions, Love and Death is powerful. Wood has a rare knack for conveying telling details that immerse the reader directly in the story. He displays a weary compassion for the people caught in the fatal drama. And, as the following passage suggests, Wood’s words often soar with insight and introspection:

The arguments of lovers are such a constant that it’s easy to notice only the most egregious examples—the shouted dispute in the gas station parking lot, the door slammed in the adjoining apartment, the bruised cheek, the child outside the courtroom waiting to learn who’s won his custody. But it seems to me that some large part, perhaps the greater portion of this violence, since undoubtedly, even in its most mild form, it is violence, is carried out in low voices, or maybe without words at all, almost unconsciously, in the turning of a shoulder at the kitchen sink or the casting of a glance.

Wood is a young writer, and on the strength of this debut, readers should expect to hear more from him. A Pennsylvania native, he won awards for nonfiction and poetry as an undergraduate at Brown University, and completed his MFA in creative nonfiction in 2010. His essays have been published in Harper’s and other magazines, and he received a prestigious Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Love and Death. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter.

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