A Southern minister befriends a Muslim professor accused of murdering a local business owner in this novel.
The town of August Valley, Georgia, is known for being a bastion of Christian fundamentalism, but the Rev. Ike Benheart broke with the Baptist Church and became a pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Church. A few hundred congregants followed him to his new spiritual home, where he takes pride in being a liberal voice in a conservative county. One morning, a local businessman, Lee Street, is found dead, and suspicion falls on Ismael Hagarson, an August Valley native and university professor of Bangladeshi descent. Street was about to sell his old department store to the local Islamic community, represented by Hagarson, for use as a mosque, but the businessman changed his mind at the last moment, and some, including Benheart, think he’d been pressured by the city council. Hagarson’s argument with Street’s realtor is enough for the police to arrest and charge the professor with murder. Curious about the case, Benheart visits the jail to meet Hagarson, who swears he is innocent. Hagarson hires a lawyer, but Benheart decides to dig further, convinced the city council had something to do with the nixed mosque deal. Benheart is surprised to learn his parents knew and helped resettle Hagarson’s mother, Gera, when she came to the U.S. from Bangladesh. With the town in an anti-Muslim uproar, Benheart begins to piece together the story of Gera’s struggles as he tries to help free the man that he is much more closely connected to than he first realized. Howard’s (Transforming Faith, 2014) tale, though ostensibly a mystery, paints a vivid picture of a conservative Southern town that, because of its military base and university, confronts social issues head-on. His protagonist is a thoughtful one, but above all he’s a humanist. Benheart’s desire to see everyone as a three-dimensional soul regardless of categories is what drives him, and the novel goes beyond the standard mystery in its hope of getting to the root of people’s differences. Interestingly, the book reaches its climactic peak as it goes back in time to document the story of Gera’s escape from Asia during the Pakistani civil war, a rich, rugged storyline that is as informative as it is compelling.
An engrossing mystery about secrets in an old Southern town that delivers a plea for unity.