“A grand and awful spectacle is presented to the beholder in this beautiful city, now in flames,” wrote Major George Ward Nichols, an aide-de-camp to Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, as he watched the Union Army’s deliberate burning of Atlanta, Georgia, on November 15, 1864. “By order, the Chief Engineer has destroyed by powder and fire all the storehouses, depot buildings and machine shops. The heaven is one expanse of lurid fire; the air is filled with flying, burning cinders; buildings covering over two hundred acres are in ruins or in flames….” The demolition of Georgia’s most significant rail and commercial center during America’s Civil War followed Sherman’s order that residents evacuate the city, and preceded his famous “March to the Sea,” a military campaign that resulted in the capture of the port city of Savannah, Georgia, just before Christmas of that same year.
The four-year Civil War essentially ended in April 1865—the month Confederate States Army commander General Robert E. Lee surrendered and a Southern sympathizer, actor John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Abraham Lincoln—but it would take far longer for Atlanta to rebuild and restore its influence. The city that emerged from those voracious flames would be not only more racially mixed and industrial, but would (in 1868) supplant the town of Milledgeville as Georgia’s capital.
It’s against this history that Mississippi author Matthew Guinn has set his new period police procedural–cum–gothic thriller, The Scribe. The tale opens in the autumn of 1881, with Atlanta—17 years past its incineration, and having survived the frequently onerous postwar polices of Reconstruction (1865-1877)—more than ready to revel in its “rebirth.” Local civic and business leaders have raised the funds necessary to open their city’s first of three 19th-century “cotton expositions,” hoping to attract outside investment and establish Atlanta as the gateway to a more contemporary and economically diverse “New South.” “We have set aside nineteen acres in Oglethorpe Park for the site,” newspaperman Henry W. Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitution (and one of several real-life figures impressed into the service of Guinn’s fiction), reminds a roomful of deep-pocketed white boosters in these pages. “We are completing twenty-seven buildings on those acres, including a model cotton factory that is to be thoroughly modern, down to the latest items of technology—the newest gins, the freshest patents….All of this accomplished in one hundred working days. Gentlemen, that number alone speaks volumes about Atlanta. One hundred days.”
But such optimism is suddenly threatened by the ghastly slayings of two African-American entrepreneurs, each of whom was found with a capital letter—first an M, then an A—carved into his forehead. Grady and his fellow movers-and-shakers aren’t horrified by the potentially racist nature of these attacks (the New South concept having included a presumption that whites would maintain social supremacy over blacks); they’re more worried that any news about violence in their town, no matter the identity of its victims, can only hurt ticket sales for the soon-to-open International Cotton Exposition (an illustration of which can be seen on the right). So a coterie of businessmen known as The Ring asks Chief of Police Vernon Thompson to find them a crack investigator who can identify and take down the repeat killer before his predations become a problem beyond their ability to cover up.
Thompson’s choice of saviors is a disgraced former Atlanta cop, Thomas Canby. He lost his job in 1877 over allegations that he’d accepted bribes from a prosperous madam, Mamie O’Donnell, who also happens to have been one of his childhood playmates. Canby claimed the money was actually a “loan” with which he intended to purchase “something for a lady,” specifically another boyhood friend—his then sweetheart, Julia Preston. Since the scandal, Canby has retreated into the life of a small-town lawman; but Thompson’s proposition of employment might give him the chance to regain both his reputation and Miss Preston’s favor.
Assigned to help Canby get to the bottom of these offenses is Cyrus Underwood, Atlanta’s first and freshly minted black policeman, a pious and abstemious gent about a decade younger than his new partner. Although he’s forbidden from carrying a firearm (“Right now,” he explains, “I’ve just got a badge and a whistle”), Underwood might be of great use to Canby, if suspicions that the killer hails from the city’s African-American community prove to be true.
Of poor Irish descent, he knows a bit about what it’s like to face discrimination in America, and having fought with the Union Army during the recent war, Canby is impatient with the South’s hangover of bigotry. There’s a memorable early scene in this tale, during which Canby and Underwood try to flag down a horse-drawn cab, only to be passed by again and again. Finally, Canby steps in front of one such carriage, demanding it halt. “Can’t carry colored,” the driver grouses. “I got a regular clientele won’t ride with me if I do.” Realizing this coach lacks the identification required to operate legally, Canby presses his advantage, saying:
“All right, then. We’ll have to impound this vehicle. Officer Underwood, you take the reins.”
“You can’t do it!” the hack cried. He seemed genuinely bewildered.
“Of course I can. You’re in violation of a city ordinance. You could lose your license, as well,” Canby said, “if you have one. Regardless, the cab gets impounded until the next court session.”“What about my horse? You going to impound him, too?”
Canby thought it over for a moment, then pulled the Bulldog from his holster. “No,” he said as he cocked the hammer back and placed the barrel against the horse’s broad forehead. “I’m going to shoot the fucking horse.”
After that, the driver had set his horse in motion and Canby and Underwood rode in silence….
Author Guinn has schooled himself impressively in the culture of Gilded Age Atlanta as well as the area’s attractions, smells and habitués. At various points The Scribe takes readers on a ride across the Chattahoochee River aboard Pace’s Ferry, leads them up Vinings Mountain and welcomes them inside Atlanta’s fanciest hotel, the Kimball House. Most importantly, The Scribe escorts readers through the gates of the International Cotton Exposition, which is described as rampant with “a weird cacophony of music and noise, of pianos and organs playing in their stalls and the cries of vendors hawking wares—tobacconists, haberdashers, sellers of painted china, antique bronzes, irons novelties, jewelry and art.” Even General Sherman, invited to pay a visit to this fair, declares himself impressed, to which editor Grady responds: “We have a knack for building and for rebuilding, General. We attribute that in part to your being kind of careless with fire.”
It’s fully understandable if, while reading Guinn’s novel, one is reminded of Erik Larson’s renowned nonfiction work, The Devil in the White City (2003), for both books contrast the delights of a world’s fair with the hunt for a remorseless murderer.
Canby’s search for his quarry takes worrisome turns as the next victims are plucked from outside the city’s black elite, and the ex-cop comes to suspect Underwood of responsibility for these atrocities. It’s worse yet that a deliberate lie Canby tells in order to flush out the perpetrator leads to a lynching very similar to that of Leo Frank, a Jewish-American pencil factory supervisor who was strung up in Atlanta in 1915 by vigilantes convinced he’d strangled a teenage girl in his employ. The more Canby pushes to resolve this novel’s multiplicity of mysteries, the greater the threats he—and those people about whom he cares—must face. We’re not talking about garden-variety threats either; this book’s final third takes on a haunting, even supernatural atmosphere (something between, say, Ray Celestin’s The Axeman and Stephen Gallagher’s The Kingdom of Bones) as the killer’s actions turn especially ugly and his motives are shown to be more sinister than mere human hatred.
The further this story rolls along, the faster its head of steam, until the action is everything. Unfortunately, Guinn seems more interested in sending readers to the very edges of their seats with scenes in cryptlike prison cells and hints about dead men rising spectacularly from their graves than he does in giving his characters dimension. Thomas Canby is the only one who receives much attention in that area, the back story of his loving father’s demise and his own decision to fight for the Union instead of the Confederacy being wholly credible and patiently presented. Most of the other players, though, are restricted to the stock roles of avaricious magnate, thickheaded racist or naïf ripe for manipulation. What can be lost as a result of this is some of the reader’s emotional attachment to Guinn’s fiction, for how can one care about such thinly portrayed figures, even when they’re done away with in notably gruesome fashion?
Matthew Guinn can be a powerful and popular storyteller, as evidenced by the fact that his 2013 debut novel, The Resurrectionist, was nominated for an Edgar Award. And there is much to be commended in The Scribe, particularly its verisimilitude, sharp dialogue, and exploration of post–Civil War race relations. But when he overreaches, when he tries to appeal to both crime and horror fiction readers, is when he satisfies neither fully.