- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 9, 2007

Writing a novel is like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but hardly anybody does anything about it. Prior to 2001, that was true of Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter, author of seven very serious works of non-fiction with heavy-duty titles like “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion” and “The Dissent of the Governed: A Meditation on Law, Religion, and Loyalty.”

To the extent Mr. Carter was known, it was chiefly in legal-academic circles. But then he did what so many non-fiction authors talk about but never get around to doing — he wrote a novel, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” which quickly achieved the Olympian heights of “#1 New York Times bestseller.” After that, he could no longer say, along with James Baldwin, nobody knows my name.

Great story, but what happened in Act Two? Did Mr. Carter, brass ring in hand, turn his back on the ivied halls of Eli? He did not. He continued to teach. But he also continued to write fiction. And so we now have “New England White,” another murder mystery set in the upper social and professional strata of life in what Mr. Carter likes to call African America. It features some of the same characters as its predecessor, and has some of the same strengths and weaknesses. All in all, it too is a compelling read.

“The Emperor of Ocean Park” opens with news of the recent death of a distinguished older man, a death thought to be from natural causes. In “New England White,” the deceased is a distinguished younger man, a death described by the town gossip as “when that colored professor got himself killed.” That the town gossip happens to be white is no surprise, because the whole town of Tyler’s Landing is white, with the very notable exception of the Lemasters, Carlyle and Julia, both of whom are Type A achievers.

Carlyle is one of those people — of any class, color, or creed — whose resume takes your breath away. Originally from Barbados, his brilliance and drive put him on the fast track early, and his life has been a string of notable successes, one right after another.

As a black youth, on scholarship to a prestigious New England university, he excelled academically and socially, and in his last year, shared the most prestigious dorm suite on campus with three young white students. As the novel opens, one of them is no longer living, but the other two are very much in the news as a U.S. senator about to run for the presidency and the incumbent president.

Trained as a lawyer, Lemaster has been a law professor, a federal judge and now the president of his alma mater. Julia, devoted mother of their four brilliant children, is the dean of the university’s divinity school, and the daughter and granddaughter of proud and powerful female authority figures with connections to men of power that eventually strain credulity.

Their new house, which they built and then furnished with impeccable taste, is the biggest in town, and they drive a new Cadillac Escalade and a new Mercedes sedan (plus an old but socially acceptable Volvo for emergencies). That is, those are their driving options until the winter night their teenage daughter Vanessa sets fire to her father’s Mercedes in the town square and then tries to slit her wrists with a dull knife.

Is this just a bad day in the life of an otherwise perfect American family or is there something sinister afoot? Silly question. The ensuing brouhaha revolves around the death, and life, of the dead “colored professor,” a brilliant economist whose consulting practice made him a rich man. The name of the deceased is Kellen Zant — no one in Carterville has a common, everyday name — and before she met her husband, Julia and Kellen were most definitely an item.

In the 20 years since she married her husband, Julia Carlyle’s feelings for her former lover have all but disappeared. She has, as they say, gotten over him. But Zant, she learns as she pokes her nose into whatever happened, never got over her. As she is drawn into the mystery of his death the extent of his obsession with her becomes alarmingly obvious.

Bit by complicated bit, it becomes clear that Zant’s death is linked to an old local crime, the murder of a young girl for which a black youth was convicted, a crime that certain people still think may have been a miscarriage of justice. The more Julia learns, the more it looks like one of the former suitemates may have done it, and that Kellen Zant had the proof, which, basic cad that he was, he was offering for sale to the highest bidder. Although aware she might learn her own husband is the murderer, she cannot stop, and follows all the leads, in the process almost becoming the next victim.

The landscape is peopled with a dizzying array of malefactors, from political operatives wanting to uncover, or cover up, a scandal that could decide the next presidential election, to a brassy investigative author, as well as university types who don’t want a scandal that could jeopardize contributions, and a cabal of townspeople with its own agenda.

As she gets closer to the answer, by following a series of clues conveniently left just for her by Zant, Julia is transformed from borderline meek to an intrepid Bondian sleuth, a metamorphosis this reader found hard to believe, as presented. Oh, I almost forgot: There’s also a crooked lawyer who may be the key to the whole puzzle.

Books about how the other half lives are always popular, especially books about the upper-other half, and Mr. Carter has that world down cold. That it’s the upper half of black society he’s chronicling adds to the interest value, mainly because it’s less often done.

There are a number of nonfiction books on the topic, such as Lawrence Otis Graham’s excellent “Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” a book I found particularly useful when writing “Silent Justice,” my biography of Clarence Thomas, as the justice is famous for his sensitivity to distinctions based on wealth and shades of darkness. While the latter is not an issue in “New England White,” it does play a part, and the author uses it effectively, especially in scenes where all the characters are black.

Oddly, while less and less impressed with either the people (of whom there are far too many) or the mystery, I found myself admiring Mr. Carter’s ability to delineate small human traits in just a few words. For example, in an early conversation with the head of the university’s security department, a former cop, “Julia was surprised at her own nervous giggle, a holdover from her biracial childhood … when giggling had been a form of self-protection, enamoring her to blacks and whites alike.” I enjoyed those moments, and there are a lot of them, much more than the overly complicated plot.

One warning: Despite being almost 100 pages shorter than “Emperor,” at 576 pages “New England White” is still a doorstop of a book, so if you plan to read it on your late summer vacation, you better have at least two weeks.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

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