Graphic gothic horror and 19th-century American caste politics meld with unsettling force in this (often literally) scorching whodunit.
It is the autumn of 1881 in the American South. President James Garfield is dead, and so is Reconstruction. The city of Atlanta wishes to mark its gradual ascent from the ashes of its Civil War ravishment-by-fire with its International Cotton Exposition, which may even include a visit of reconciliation from its one-time scourge, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman himself. But just before the festivities begin, police find grotesquely mutilated corpses of African-American entrepreneurs with capital letters carved into their foreheads. Desperate for a quick, timely solution, a cabal of prominent businessmen, known as “the Ring,” discreetly hires a discredited, disillusioned ex–Atlanta detective named Thomas Canby to investigate these bizarre serial killings. Since the Ring’s suspicions settle primarily on the city’s segregated black population, Canby is aided in this task by pious, prim Cyrus Underwood, Atlanta’s first duly authorized constable of color, who Canby soon finds is a lot steelier than he seems. And they both soon find that there’s far more to this gory series of murders than meets the eye, as white corpses, each with foreheads bearing bloody single letters, join the black ones in what another character likens to a accursed “spelling bee.” Guinn’s previous period mystery, last year’s The Resurrectionist, was an Edgar finalist for its thoroughbred-racing momentum, and with his conscientious attention to historic detail, and vividly ghoulish imagery, he could conceivably cross the finish line with this ripsnorting follow-up, an intricately woven page-turner whose subtext of class and racial animus ingrained in the American psyche reinforces James Joyce’s assertion of history being the true nightmare from which it’s impossible to awaken.
Imagine a sequel to Birth of a Nation as conceived, written, and directed by David Lynch. Too much of a stretch? Wait till you see who—or what—is behind the mayhem.