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WALK THROUGH DARKNESS

The sheer power of its core material makes Walk Through Darkness intermittently gripping and affecting, but far too much of...

The long arm of coincidence and an overload of what seems very like wish-fulfillment mar this potentially moving story of a runaway slave’s northward odyssey, the successor to Durham’s flawed but deservedly praised first novel Gabriel’s Story (2001).

It consists of two parallel narratives. The primary one follows William “Humboldt’s” flight (in 1854) from the Maryland tidewater plantation where he had remained after his pregnant wife Dover was brought by her mistress north, to Philadelphia. Interpolated italicized chapters and passages chart the progress of Andrew Morrison, a Scottish immigrant and hunter hired by William’s owner to retrieve the latter’s “property.” The story is best in the early going, as Durham’s obviously thorough research and deep empathy with his subject create vivid pictures of Morrison’s haunted past and William’s successive ordeals, including incarceration in a slave compound followed by a bloody rebellion during which he escapes again, rescue by a ship whose compassionate captain refuses the demands of Southern slaveholders, and William’s embattled passage to Philadelphia and reunion with Dover. So far, so good—except when characters like saintly fellow fugitive Lemuel and Northern freedman Redford Prince are permitted to lecture us about such issues as the Fugitive Slave Law and the brotherhood of man. And the novel collapses into ludicrous contrivance when Durham (as unsubtly as can be imagined) links the guilty secret in Morrison’s past with William’s clouded paternity and personal history. One understands that Durham’s point is (as Faulkner made clear again and again in his fiction) the degree to which all our histories intersect and are interdependent. But his story’s thrust is so weighted toward melodramatic oversimplification that one thinks, while reading it, less of earlier literary fiction built on similar themes than of the TV version of Roots.

The sheer power of its core material makes Walk Through Darkness intermittently gripping and affecting, but far too much of its content simply defies credibility. One wonders if it’s actually Durham’s first novel.

Pub Date: May 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-385-49925-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2002

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ABSOLUTE POWER

The mother of all presidential cover-ups is the centerpiece gimmick in this far-fetched thriller from first-novelist Baldacci, a Washington-based attorney. In the dead of night, while burgling an exurban Virginia mansion, career criminal Luther Whitney is forced to conceal himself in a walk-in closet when Christine Sullivan, the lady of the house, arrives in the bedroom he's ransacking with none other than Alan Richmond, President of the US. Through the one-way mirror, Luther watches the drunken couple engage in a bout of rough sex that gets out of hand, ending only when two Secret Service men respond to the Chief Executive's cries of distress and gun down the letter-opener-wielding Christy. Gloria Russell, Richmond's vaultingly ambitious chief of staff, orders the scene rigged to look like a break-in and departs with the still befuddled President, leaving Christy's corpse to be discovered at another time. Luther makes tracks as well, though not before being spotted on the run by agents from the bodyguard detail. Aware that he's shortened his life expectancy, Luther retains trusted friend Jack Graham, a former public defender, but doesn't tell him the whole story. When Luther's slain before he can be arraigned for Christy's murder, Jack concludes he's the designated fall guy in a major scandal. Meanwhile, little Gloria (together with two Secret Service shooters) hopes to erase all tracks that might lead to the White House. But the late Luther seems to have outsmarted her in advance with recurrent demands for hush money. The body count rises as Gloria's attack dogs and Jack search for the evidence cunning Luther's left to incriminate not only a venal Alan Richmond but his homicidal deputies. The not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper climax provides an unsurprising answer to the question of whether a US president can get away with murder. For all its arresting premise, an overblown and tedious tale of capital sins. (Film rights to Castle Rock; Book-of-the-Month selection)

Pub Date: Jan. 18, 1996

ISBN: 0-446-51996-0

Page Count: 480

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 1995

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THE SECRET HISTORY

The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992

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