“They got my brother!” hairdresser Bertha Owen screams into ex-cop Mali Anderson’s phone at 4 a.m. Kendrick Owen isn’t dead, but he might as well be: The corpse in the alley behind the Half-Moon Bar is Thea Morris, Kendrick’s fellow bartender and girlfriend, a former beauty queen shot dead on her 33rd birthday. The cops, unmoved by this year’s millionth killing in Harlem, like the neatness of tagging Kendrick for the murder. But Bert swears her little brother wouldn’t have done such a thing, and Kendrick’s voice and acting coach Teddi Lovette, whose race and money are likely to have a lot more pull where it matters, offers Mali $20,000 to get the lowdown on Thea’s life. Mali soon finds that there’s a lot to learn, most of it pretty low. Thea was pregnant (by Kendrick? by her more upscale lover, veteran senator Edwin Michaels?), grasping, and none too fussy about how she got the money to support the wide swath she was determined to cut in the uptown social circles Edwards (If I Should Die, 1997, etc.) brings to life so well. But when the smoke finally clears--Thea’s murder is only the call to arms--the heavy hitters, inevitably, will be people with a lot more to lose, and a lot fewer scruples about how to save it all, than the slain beauty queen and the loyal kid who loved her. More successful as social history than as mystery; the stench of big-city corruption and racist fear is so powerful from the opening scene onward that it’s obvious where all the bodies will turn out to be buried.