Nick Travers, pro footballer turned academic, is back for his second riff as the blues historian with dynamite in his fists. This time out he leaves his Tulane University home base en route for Chicago to interview legendary songbird Ruby Walker (the "Sweet Black Angel"), who some think topped even Bessie Smith as the greatest blues lady of them all. Nick won't have any trouble locating her, he knows, since for the past 40 years she's bunked in an Illinois state prison. Convicted of murdering her manager/lover, downtrodden Ruby has been virtually sphinxlike while serving a life sentence—no interviews, almost no communication with anyone. But much to Nick's surprise she's expressed a desire to see him. She wants more than that, he soon learns: she wants him to put on his Sherlock cap and prove her innocence. She's heard about him, she says, heard how he helped others (Crossroad Blues
, 1998). "Hope can be mean," she tells him, but thanks to him, she has hold of it again. Nick finds her irresistible, of course, and begins an investigation that takes him deep into the sad, bad world of blues musicians, where he encounters dirty secrets, ugly lies, a former lover, and a demented though dedicated murderer. In the end, however, he does give Ruby a little to smile about.
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