Racial tensions come to a murderous boil at the University of Florida, Jack Swyteck’s beloved alma mater, in this ripped-from-the-headlines thriller.
Soon after Jamal Cousin, the head of the Alpha fraternity, is found hogtied and hanged in a nearby swamp, suspicion falls on Mark Towson, the president of Theta Pi Omega, because of a text message he’d sent Jamal using the N word and concluding: “Strange fruit on the river.” Mark swears he never sent the text. He never uses that word, he doesn’t know what strange fruit is, and he thinks Billie Holiday, who made the song famous in 1939, is a man. But he can’t explain how it was logged in as having originated with his cellphone, and soon the evidence begins to mount that he knew what he was doing and meant to threaten and perhaps kill Jamal. Luckily for Mark, his father, Tucker Towson, is an old friend of Jack Swyteck (Most Dangerous Place, 2017, etc.), who’s soon on the case. That’s about the only bright spot, though. Mark’s mother is stricken by a return of her cancer; he’s expelled from the university after a hearing that’s mishandled at every turn; and his fraternity buddy Baine Robinson, whose phone sent another message to Jamal, turns against him. As Jack, battling to find out what really happened while keeping Mark from getting railroaded, finds that the burden of proof in a college disciplinary matter is a lot lighter than in a court of law, his wife, FBI agent Andie Henning, is asked to go deep undercover with the Aryan National Alliance in a case that’s even more explosive.
Tackling racism, white supremacists, and a generations-old lynching, the book is admirably heartfelt and humane. But the forces of evil are cartoons, the subplot feels tacked on, and the conclusion is unsatisfying on every level.