Every year our family heads up to Michigan for a family vacation. We spend a relaxed week at Portage Point Inn, which is featured as the main picture on this blog. For the past several years we have held a book club. This year we are reading Stephen L. Carter’s book, New England White. Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School and author of another work of fiction titled The Emperor of Ocean Park. What Carter is known for is “richness of plot and character” (from the jacket cover). That’s a good way to put it; Carter is strong in both of these areas (rich plot and substantive character development) in both New England White and in his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park.
New England White is a mystery set in the New England town of Elm Harbor. Here is an exerpt from The New Yorker:
In “New England White,” the new president of the university is the formidable former White House counsel Lemaster Carlyle, Barbados-born, a “tough little spark-plug of a man” who has been introduced in “The Emperor of Ocean Park” as a “nearly perfect politician” and a founder of a “forgotten organization called Liberals for Bush.” (In the new novel, we learn that he was a college roommate—and is seemingly still a close friend—of the current incumbent of the Oval Office.) He and his wife, Julia, from whose perspective most of “New England White” is narrated, constitute “the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost.” Yet more awkwardly for Elm Harbor’s color-conscious locals, the town’s first murder victim in decades, Kellen Zant, a flamboyantly driven economist and onetime lover of Julia Carlyle, also happens to be black.
The search for the identity of Zant’s killer, the circumstances involving Zant’s own investigation into a thirty-year-old mystery (a rape-murder of a white girl by, allegedly, a black boy, who was slain by police before he could be tried), the myriad snarled connections between the Carlyles and the murder victim: these provide “New England White” with the considerable fuel required to maintain narrative momentum through more than five hundred pages. As a murder mystery, the novel moves, at times, with unusual deliberation, for it is the author’s intention not to “tell” a story but to show how an essential story has been mis-told in the struggle to define the truth. Here, the truth is about who killed the teen-age girl, why the suspect may have been killed without provocation, and why no one in power has been willing to talk about the episode. It sounds like a familiar situation, with ugly racist overtones, but it’s one that Carter handles with audacious originality.
It is a good mystery, but there are also a number of interesting subplots worth considering. These include discussions of both race and religion, as The New Yorker review suggests. On the subject of religion, here is a quote from one of the early exchanges with Lemaster, one of the central characters:
The problem…was that people want a God small enough to fit in their hip pockets, to be pulled out only when necessary to gain a secular advantage. Nobody wants a God who tells us what to do, he said. We want a God who commands only what we tell Him to command, and allows whatever we tell Him to allow. We want a God who’s smaller than we are, who is never unruly, who falls into line. No wonder nobody goes to church any more. Why worship a Being that insignificant? [p. 78]
I may post more later, after our book club discussion. But it is an interesting read and one that I recommend for the complex plot, character development and navigation of various subplots.