Short novel about the first black cop in Pompan, New Jersey, and what happens when the world slips out from underfoot.
Stein, a doctor (The White Life, 1999) and teacher (Brown University), deserves praise for adventurous plotting and nicely worked characters. He strives, too, for the crisp style and delivery of James M. Cain, and for a touch of Cain’s surreal bravura during this novel’s most explosive moments. But commenting on The Lynching Tree offers horrible problems, in that even to suggest the utterly minimal plot will deprive the reader of its liveliest surprises and suspense. You really do not want to know what this story is about before you read it. Still, to offer the faintest of sketches: Donald “Cage” Gambell, a college graduate at 23, wants to follow in the footsteps of a revered uncle, a detective in Detroit, and become the same himself. Of course, first he must be a cop and walk a beat. Pompan has just had a lynching—a white man, the town drunk and bully, has been found strung up by his own belt, with some black mannequins nearby. Blacks and whites are divided about whether the murderer was black or white, and, to calm the citizenry, the town’s first black cop is hired fresh from the police academy. And so it is that, on New Year’s Eve, Gambell and his white fellow officer Butras come upon a gang of armed youths in a fracas near Bryant School. The incident leads to an event that later helps resolve the lynching mystery while adding an even deeper tragedy to the tale.
Stein shuffles fragments of his climax throughout the novel, a device not all to the good, since it suggests a stronger close than the story can actually bear. Still, well done, even memorable, if not altogether fulfilling.