Mississippi Burning meets CSI as a forensic anthropologist and a down-on-his-luck FBI agent join forces to unravel a 40-year-old civil-rights crime in this well-done debut.
In the summer of 1965, the body of an obscure civil-rights activist named Leon Jackson washed out of a flooded river levee near Split Tree, Ark. A month later, digging in the same levee, the FBI came across the dead body of a young white male. This second body was never identified, and the case was never closed—which is why Special Agent Michael Levine and Army anthropologist Robert McKelvey find themselves prowling around town trying to shed some light on the decades-old killings. Split Tree, though, is the sort of place that doesn’t give up its secrets easily, something the pair learn as they butt heads with Waymond Elmore, the area’s none-too-accommodating sheriff, and his vaguely menacing errand boy/deputy Jimbo Bevins. In structure, it’s a fairly ambitious first effort as Holland (the scientific director of the Department of Defense’s Central Identification Laboratory) does a nice job juggling his chosen handful of plotlines, flashbacks and back stories. The odd-couple shtick that develops between New Yorker G-man Levine and southern scientist McKelvey is the stale stuff of your standard buddy-pic, but it still manages to amuse. The author overloads the pages with scattershot imagery but proves a steady hand at maintaining the story’s momentum, slowly escalating the tension as Levine and McKelvey put together Split Tree’s tragic past piece-by-piece, revealing just what happened at the levee 40 years ago and, in the process, adding a third body to the town’s toll.
Familiar, but fun all the same.