New England White by Stephen L Carter

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New England White by Stephen L Carter

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Category: Crime
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: What does the murder of an Economics Professor in 2004 have to do with the death of black teenager 30 years before? And are the locally powerfully Carlyles implicated or merely interested? A splendidly old-fashioned murder-mystery-cum-political thriller. Tightly plotted, succinctly characterised, with a sever dose of social comment...a future classic.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
ISBN: 978-0224062893

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Tyler's Landing is what you'd expect of a New England village: white and waspish and full of gossip. Not gossips, obviously, because nobody actually spreads the rumours... but the stories get around. Stories about the murdered professor, and about Vanessa Carlyle setting fire to the family car on the village green.

The professor was Kellen Zant, an Economics Professor and one-time lover of the now wife of Lemaster Carlyle. Carlyle is President of the university in nearby Elm Harbour, and a very powerful man. Not just powerful for a black man... not just powerful in the world of academia... but it will transpire, powerful, perhaps, on a national scale.

Zant was not powerful. He was charming and clever... and he was greedy. A combination that always does harm and in this case probably got him killed.

A few months before his death, Vanessa Carlyle - one of the daughters of the house - had a breakdown and set fire to the car. She's now in therapy, but no-one is any closer to the truth of why she did what she did. Was it anything to do with her enquiries into a forgotten local murder? The teenage Gina Joules, died thirty years previously, her body washed up on the beach. A local black youth was suspected of the murder and somehow 'died' during the arrest. It wasn't a lynching... New Englanders don't do that sort of thing. But he died, and the investigation was shut down.

There wouldn't normally be any connection made between the two events... but for the fact that it is the Carlyles who discover the murdered Zant on a back road so far 'back' that it doesn't get listed on the maps.

The person who starts making connections is Julia Carlyle... wife, mother, former lover. She might have her own reasons for wanting to know what happened, but it is the clues left her by Zant that draw her ever closer into the mystery, closer to the truth...

New England White is that most satisfying of books: a tightly plotted old-fashioned murder mystery laced with political intrigue and riddled with social comment, that holds the suspense to the very end.

Characters are kept few in number (the benefits of choosing a 'closed circle': small town, academic institution) - and are split in traditional fashion into the 'locals': the people of Elm Harbour, the university and the Landing and 'the strangers': the journalist, the President's new aide, the out-of-towners. But the locals don't know everything you might expect, and the out-of-towners seem to be where they shouldn't and know more than they should. And all of them are believable... in their 'type' and in their persons. Not a trait out of place. Whatever the 'Author's Note' might say... one feels these are people and places he knows well.

The plot twists and turns with every new clue and its following; motives are discovered and discounted and reconsidered; alibis likewise. There are word games to be played, and gadgets to be imagined. We follow the trail as Julia does. She is our guide... and we know what she knows, and can draw our own conclusions.

We get the requisite car-trails, and threats from on high. We have, in the person on the Director of Campus Safety, the lone cop with no authority. We have family history and hysterical youth. We even get the moments of high drama: the darkness of the archive stacks after hours when there is no way out and the lift creaks upwards, the violence of abduction and the 'lost in the snow piled woods with a gunman stalking'. Clichés all... and all teased into a perfect whole.

Hard to say what takes this above the rest...

Maybe it's the Black/White theme. Tensions we expect to see played out in the badland cities of New York and Washington and in the deep south, transplanted to the Norwich and Hanover and beyond them to the county backwaters of genteel America. The notion of powerful blacks in the 'heart of whiteness'.

Maybe it's just the notion of powerful blacks, who choose to use their power differently... recognising that maybe they cannot take the whites on their own ground, so choose a different one... a more subtle one.

Maybe it's the secondary themes of right-wing politics and gender inequality showing up in the most unlikely places, and the exploration "of the profound difference between allegiance to ideas and to people" (as the blurb has it).

A little of it is the capturing of place... so maybe Elm Harbour isn't really New Haven, and Dartmouth doesn't offer a PhD in Economics... but from a very brief visit to Norwich, and Hanover, and Boston, I could 'remember' how those places would be at a different season... and Carter captures them in throw-away phrases that carefully get out of the way of the action.

For that's the point. This is a hunt. A murder hunt, a treasure hunt, a search for justice of one kind, or maybe another. And it cannot wait. Patience is the virtue stressed throughout... there are clubs and societies playing the long game behind the scenes, but on the ground, there is a greater feeling of urgency. A different interpretation of what matters.

The only thing wrong with this book - apart from the title and the cover - is that it wasn't written while Hitchcock was still around to make the movie... I'm not sure who else will do it justice.

Genre fiction, perhaps, but a potential classic.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you like your crime played out against political backdrops, with the deep shadow of the secret societies, try Zone Defence for a completely difference take on a similar idea.

Booklists.jpg New England White by Stephen L Carter is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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