New England White by Stephen L. Carter

Connie Ogle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

New England White delves into the secrets of race, culture, morality and murder in a university town.

New England White

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0375413626
Author: Stephen L. Carter
Price: $26.95
Length: 576
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-06

The whiteness that truly blankets Tyler's Landing is deeper and more complex than the snow that routinely coats this pristine New England village, tony next-door neighbor to the bustling university town of Elm Harbor. It's more insidious, too, hardly bothering to camouflage fretful prejudices, yet burying dangerous secrets with cold and efficient precision.

Like Stephen L. Carter's bracing, if sometimes frustrating, second novel, Tyler's Landing is an intriguing study in contrasts. The village is postcard pretty, but ugly cover-ups simmer beneath its facade. You can buy succulent fudge at Cookie's Place on Main Street, but the foul gossip pouring from owner Vera Brightwood's mouth is anything but sweet. And though the suburban paradise seems like a safe haven, murder is about to become an unfortunate recurrence.

The slaying of economics professor Kellen Zant propels this thick, intellectually stimulating thriller that neatly combines elements of suspense with terrific if unsettling cultural insights into what Carter terms "African America," its upper-class families and fierce traditions and its shaky coexistence with the white power structure.

Like his debut novel The Emperor of Ocean Park, which delved into similar territory, New England White excels at societal dissection and character development. Carter, more Scott Turow than John Grisham, builds his mystery meticulously, but though he exhaustively reiterates every clue -- or perhaps because he does -- New England White ultimately grows fatiguing, its logic repetitive, and its final confrontation comes off as ridiculous.

Overall, though, the ratio of entertainment to disappointment is high. Carter's exploration of morality is compelling, and he's not afraid to turn the standard convention of justice on its head. He also has deftly rendered Julia Carlyle, a dean at the divinity school, and her husband Lemaster, president of the university and possibly, as an old college buddy of the U.S. president, the most powerful black man in the country.

The Carlyles, who played a secondary role in The Emperor of Ocean Park, find Kellen's body after a traffic mishap on a snowy, isolated road. Julia thinks she's seeing a dead animal. But, in one of Carter's more fanciful if not downright preposterous lines, she realizes her mistake: "Deer, she reminded herself, rarely wear shoes."

The discovery, though, is not the Carlyles' only connection to the dead man. Years before her marriage, Julia was Kellen's lover. Their past proves fateful when it becomes clear that Kellen possessed a dangerous secret and that he left staggeringly complex clues -- many are awkwardly related to his passion for economics -- so that Julia can complete his mysterious project. Her troubled teenage daughter, obsessed with a 30-year-old murder, may be linked to his death, too.

Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale and a onetime clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, creates an invigorating and often scathing portrait of the Carlyles' community. He refutes political correctness, preferring to explore the contradictions warring within Julia, "a biology teacher who only half believed in science settling at a divinity school that only half believed in God."

Her activist mother didn't approve of Kellen or the Barbados-born Lemaster: "the one too poor and the other too dark." Julia, too, tends to be awkward around anyone from "the darker nation" unlikely to receive an invitation to the exclusive Orange and White Cotillon. "As her grandmother used to say, there are our black people and there are other black people -- and all her life Julia had secretly believed it."

Carter is equally intense in his portrayal of the Carlyles' outwardly perfect, inwardly turbulent marriage, a delicate balance of duty and endurance, even love of a sort. Julia, growing angry over the status quo and Lemaster's silence regarding his secretive club, the Empyreals, begins to wonder why she does most of the heavy lifting.

Also investigating the murder, in a slightly more official way than Julia, is Bruce Vallely, a retired cop working security at the university. Bruce's arrival in the story is abrupt but welcome; he offers an interesting working-class perspective. He doesn't much like Julia, or "any of the growing number of well-to-do black parents who vanished with their offspring into lily-white suburbs at the first opportunity."

Carter deserves praise for boldly tackling such daunting topics as racism, cultural divisions and dubious shadings of morality under the guise of a summer beach read. If only he had trusted our intelligence. His later chapters assume the overheated mentality of a bad 24 episode, ending with idiotic cliffhangers. One chapter ends with: "She wondered if Smith had ever tried to build . ... Hmmm."

And another, even worse, conclusion: "A larid was a kind of seagull, and if you substituted `Gull' in place of Larid' you got `Shari Gull,' which was an anagram of. ... "

New England White doesn't need such cheap tricks. "I think America has a short attention span," Julia says at the book's conclusion. Carter should trust that his readers don't.

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