Here’s an obvious double-meaning in the title of Stephen L. Carter’s latest novel.
New England White refers to the snowy landscape where the story of a high-achieving university couple—President Lemaster Carlyle and his wife, Julia—takes place in an Ivy League-inspired but unnamed college somewhere in New England.
But what’s also clear is the title speaks to the consciousness of the main characters living supremely privileged lives difficult to separate from their black roots.
Lemaster is arguably “the most powerful black man in the country,” a towering intellect with influential friends in the highest levels of academia and government, evidenced by his close personal friendship with the president of the United States (also unnamed, but eerily close to George W. Bush). Julia is the daughter of a flamboyant mother raised among black bourgeoise who teach their children to stay away from less sophisticated members of what is constantly referred to as “the darker nation.”
As he did in his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, Carter, a Yale law professor with several well-regarded non-fiction books to his credit, has set a stylishly written detective story and thriller in the rarefied environment of black socialites, ministers, university professors, lawyers and politicians.
First identified by W.E.B. Dubois as “the talented tenth,” these are blacks with backgrounds envied by most Americans, the children of privilege who maintain that privilege by keeping close watch over who is allowed into the club.
Carter has found a way to educate readers about this “secret” class without boring them with historical footnotes or explanations about the source of their wealth.
Just as in his earlier novel, he does it by presenting a page-turning yarn that reads like a movie script and races through a finely plotted tale filled with surprises.
New England White begins with a murder mystery, the shooting death of Kellen Zant, a talented black professor who also happened to be Julia’s former lover.
As the plot thickens with various developments, Julia is dragged into a web of deceit and interference from the noisiest members of her social club and various university types, who suspect Zant’s death may be tied to research he was doing about a decades-old murder of a white girl.
Carter ratchets up the suspense by introducing a snooping reporter, a hard-boiled black detective who works security at the college and Julia’s daughter as a possible suspect.
That’s a lot even for a 500-plus-page novel. But Carter keeps it going, relying on the formula he perfected in Emperor: an intriguing writing style that keeps the suspense taut with surprise after surprise.
The flaws are also echoed.
Carter continues to turn his ordinary heroes into action-movie caricatures at inappropriate times.
Even Julia, depicted for most of the book as a genteel university president’s wife, ends up in a shoot-out with a menacing interloper. And there’s a maddening tendency for main characters to get a “Eureka!” flash.
Still, New England White holds its center, mainly due to Carter’s familiarity with his chosen core group and his imaginative plotting devices.