Trembling earnestness almost redeems the turgid prose and superabundance of stock characters in this murder mystery that strains hard for mythic import and Deep Meaning.
Hushpuckashaw County, Miss., is hell. And Bailey (The Grace That Keeps This World, 2005, etc.) stokes the fire relentlessly. There’s been a demonic crime: Drowned in the bath one Friday morning is the baby girl of Sissy Rule Tisdale, daughter of the backwater’s leading family. And the punishment is yet more heinous: Letitia Johnson, the Rules’s long-trusted nanny, is lynched, then tarred and set on fire. Into the aftermath arrives Baby Allen, a social worker entrusted to find a foster home for Letitia’s hapless daughter, a 12-year-old fearing the eye-for-an-eye wrath of vigilantes headed up by the nefarious Calvin McGales. He’s captain of Camp 5 of Parchman Farm, the state’s bleakest prison. Mr. Boss Chief Lemaster, more or less Satan incarnate, runs the inferno. His boy, Jake, betrays occasional decency, even while skulking in the shadows, afraid to cross his social-climbing, doll-perfect missus. Jake has his hands full when Bigger, Letitia’s lover and a hulking Parchman presence, stabs a prison guard, committing the grossest act of all: Black con offs white cop. Soon enough, Baby’s and Jake’s paths intersect—she desperate for info that’ll clear Letitia (hint: Sissy’s mom is fairly unhinged), he desperate that Parchman not become a riot scene. In subplot after subplot, Bailey piles on the aw-shucks dialogue while hoeing the same row that Harper Lee and Earnest Gaines did so much better. Ultimately, Jake is martyred; Baby is vindicated; Letitia’s daughter herself becomes a social worker.
Tiresome, by-the-numbers Southern fiction—an odd combination of the overheated and boring.