The murder of a young Kansas City socialite serves as the starting point for a contemporary tale of incest, hypocrisy, and race relations.
When a young white woman’s body is snagged by a fishing line in the Missouri River, near Kansas City, it’s quickly discovered that her death was no accident, and the police begin to search for the most obvious suspect—her African-American boyfriend, Booker Short. The manhunt, however, covers only a portion of the story as Terrell, investigating the boundaries where history, memory, and legend converge, sets the scene with long forays into Short’s youth: the night his father ran away, literally a step ahead of the law; the day soon after when his mother brought young Booker to her parents and then left him behind; and his coming of age on his grandfather’s farm. Also recalled are the wartime experiences and unpleasant secrets of Short’s erstwhile patron, septuagenarian Mercury Chapman, a white man who had commanded black troops, including Short’s bitter grandfather, during WWII, and who was involved in the military execution of one of his men, the final revelation of which turns Booker’s preconceived notions upside down. There are also the horrific personal and family secrets of the dead woman, Clarissa Sayers, daughter of a prominent judge. Terrell leaves few stones unturned in his effort to mine these family histories, and scrape away the ambiguities—he even explores the Sayers family background, going back two generations. While the story remains somewhat a mystery—is Booker Short the murderer?—the answer is subsumed by the whole complexity of the narrative. That complexity includes comic interludes—an intern reporter who thinks his prose ought to be literary rather than journalistic; the man who recovers the body has an immediate crush on the detective investigating the crime—that are so finely woven in that there’s no change of pace. The author simply never loses his voice.
A masterful, surprising first novel, Faulknerian in its tone and structure, by a fine new storyteller.