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Was the wrong man--a 14-year-old black--strapped into South Carolina's electric chair for the murder of two white gifts in 1944? That's the premise of this sincere but stumbling semihistorical first novel, based on an actual case. Stout sets the first half of his story in 1944, opening with the brutal stabbings by an unseen assailant of little Cindy Lou Ellerby and Sue Ellen Clark and working up to the execution of young Linus Bragg, son of one of the poor black families scratching out a living at the rural sawmill near where the girls are slain. Fingered by an Uncle Tom-type, Linus evinces neither the grit nor the wits to defend himself against the grinding wheels of white justice. Even kindhearted local sheriff Hiram Stoker believes Linus the likely killer--especially after the boy signs a dictated confession. It's with sadness, though, that Stoker watches Linus defended incompetently at trial and then electrocuted. Jump to 1988: Linus' nephew, out-of-work newspaperman James Willop, travels South as a debt of honor to his late mother to try to exonerate Linus. As Willop digs out telltale documents and interviews ancient witnesses, those intimately involved with the case--Hiram's deputy, that Uncle Tom--die violently. The local cops suspect Willop of these new deaths, but a penitential codicil in the will of the sawmill's owner--is his still-surviving son the real killer?--leads to an expected tidy conclusion. A decent historical--the first half cannily evokes a feudal South where the sheriff's genteel patronage is the best deal a black can expect--but an abysmal lurch at mystery: the villain sticks out like Simon Legree from page eight, and what tepid suspense remains sinks beneath Stout's wash of sentimental humanism that has black and white shaking hands and pledging friendship at novel's end.

Pub Date: May 16th, 1988
Publisher: Mysterious Press--dist. by Ballantine