In this debut novel, a lawyer travels home to Texas intent on solving a murder that has forever haunted him.
Covey Jencks grew up in Odessa, Texas, anxious to flee its confines for something grander. His mother died and his father was a scoundrel living out his last years in a nursing home, so Covey left for college, a stint in the Army, and then law school. But he still felt the magnetic pull of his native town and the aching mystery of an unsolved murder with which he remained obsessed. In 1979, when Covey was a junior in high school, a black woman named Alfreda “Freddie” Mae Johnson was stabbed to death, and her husband, Cleon, was quickly charged and convicted of the crime. Freddie was an employee of Covey’s father as well as the manager of her stable of prostitutes, and the teen was always very fond of her. He was shaken by her murder and unconvinced of Cleon’s responsibility. Years later, Covey quits his high-paying job as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and moves back to Odessa, starting a law practice of his own that focuses on oil and gas. The real reason, though, for his return is that he feels compelled to finally find Freddie’s real killer and bring clarity to a puzzle that has bedeviled him for years. He reignites a relationship with his black high school girlfriend, Bonnie Jay—back then known as B.J., now as JayJay—and she becomes his investigative partner and confidante. Together, they uncover a progressively dark series of truths about a dangerous criminal enterprise Freddie had become enmeshed in—and had struggled to extricate herself from—that involved the illegal trafficking of women across the Mexican border into the United States.
Williams seamlessly braids a murder mystery with a love story and a drama about the pervasiveness of racism in the South. Most of the tale is narrated in the first person by Covey until the novel’s voice fractures into the varying perspectives of the main characters, a device that effectively fleshes out the full story without awkwardly adopting a third-person account. The author’s prose is buoyantly eccentric, both insightful and self-effacingly humorous. And the clues Covey and JayJay track down are meted out to readers with impressive judiciousness: The author never prematurely surrenders so much information that the conclusion is rendered foregone while the tale’s swift pace prevents it from becoming tedious. Furthermore, Williams provides a perspicacious commentary on the paradox of racial prejudice. It can assert itself in monstrously bombastic ways—for example, the prideful violence of the Ku Klux Klan—but it can be so nuanced that its purveyors remain unaware of it. At one point, Covey tells JayJay: “I am acting on the assumption that most people, even the cops, just live with prejudice and don’t resort to KKK terrorism. You know, some racism bubbles over the top and some is simply on permanent low reserve.” Covey often wonders if he really is, in some deeply fundamental way, a racist despite his loathing of bigotry and his sincere love for JayJay.
An engrossing crime drama that’s both entertaining and provocative.