New England White
Like Stephen L. Carter’s first novel The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002), New England White is a mystery in which an African American academic from the unnamed Ivy League university located in the fictional New England city of Elm Harbor becomes a detective. This time, that character is Julia Carlyle, a deputy dean of the divinity school, who is the daughter of a prominent black feminist professor, the wife of a powerful black lawyer and former judge who has recently become president of the university, the granddaughter of leading figures of Harlem’s aristocracy in the first half of the twentieth century, the descendant of a family that has been a leading member of the Clanthe informal name for the oldest families of the black elitesince before the Civil War, and the mother of two daughters and two sons. Raised in Hanover, New Hampshire, where her mother taught at Dartmouth and she earned her undergraduate degree, she was a biology teacher for several years before attending the divinity school in Elm Harbor, where she met and married her husband, who was also a student there.
The novel begins on the night of the second Friday in November, 2003, as Julia and Lemaster Carlyle are driving home from a fund-raising event, talking about their evening and about their seventeen-year-old daughter Vanessa. In February, she had set fire to her father’s midnight blue Mercedes on the Town Green in Tyler’s Landing, the nearly all-white bedroom community where the family is living while the president’s house at the university is being renovated. Since then, Vanessa has been in therapy, but they are not sure whether it is helping, and they still do not understand why she did it. Taking a shortcut on a back road, Lemaster loses control of their Cadillac Escalade on the ice, and they have an accident. When they get out to survey the damage, Julia sees something in the woods next to the road. It turns out to be the dead body of Kellen Zant, a professor of economics at the universityand Julia’s lover more than twenty years ago, before she met Carlyle. When it becomes clear that Zant has been murdered, and that he had been asking questions about the same thirty-year-old story of another death on another snowy night in Tyler’s Landing that has been obsessing their daughter, Julia soon finds herself trying to uncover the truth about both murders. Ultimately, her search will reveal more secrets than she is sure she wants to knowabout her lover, her husband, and her daughter, but also about the president of the United States, a Democratic senator who is running against him in 2004, and about hidden currents of power in the black and white communities of Tyler’s Landing, Elm Harbor, and the America beyond. “Time covers truth like snow,” she will write to her mother on the novel’s last page. “The best part of New England life is that it is a very long time before the snow melts.”
Carter first came to prominence with his Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby (1991), which combined memoir with a cultural analysis of racial attitudes in America. He has since gone on to write books about religion, politics, law, integrity, civility, and loyalty. In New England White, he touches on all of these themes in a tale that is, at once, a detective story, a novel of manners, and a family drama, as well as an exploration of upper-class black characters seldom seen in the fiction of other African American writers. It is hardly surprising, then, that his novel is more than five hundred pages long; what is surprising, perhaps, is that Carter manages to hold his readers’ interest until that last page. He knows how to weave and satisfyingly complicate a plot; to end episodes and chapters with cliff-hangers that make the reader want to turn the page; to create main characters who engage his readers’ curiosity and sympathy and develop in intriguing ways; to introduce minor characters who are quickly defined and just as effectively used to advance, retard, confuse, divert, and resolve the action; to use humor to lighten the mood and reveal a character; and how to tie up allwell, mostof the loose ends, while exploring the manners and mores, textures and tones, aspirations and foibles, of the black and white, urban and suburban, academic and political worlds he treats. Like John le Carré or Scott Turow, he offers the satisfactions of first-class genre writing, and...
(The entire section is 1799 words.)