After a numbing evening entertaining wealthy alums, Julia Carlyle heads home with her university president husband to a feverish daughter and a runaway cat – only to hit a sheet of ice and wind up in a ditch. If that weren't bad enough, they aren't the only occupants of the ditch – and their neighbor turns out to be a dead body. Not just any body, either: The murder victim, Kellen Zant, was a world-famous economist who just so happened to be Julia's old flame.
The complications pile up thick and fast in New England White, Stephen L. Carter's second novel, as Julia finds herself unwillingly picking up her magnifying glass. "A biology teacher who only half believed in science" who works "at a divinity school that only half believed in God" might not be an obvious first choice to play detective, but the mother of four is pressed into action after the local police dismiss the murder as a robbery gone awry.
Aided by the head of campus security, Julia becomes determined to figure out what Zant was working on before he died, and why someone would have killed him for it. Her concerns mount as Julia becomes convinced that Zant's death is tied to a 30-year-old local murder that has become an obsession for her bright but troubled daughter, Vanessa. A black teenager who was killed in a police standoff was blamed for the crime. Decades later Vanessa is one of the few who really thinks he's guilty.
"New England White," with its knowing descriptions of both campus and upper-middle-class African-American life, works as a thriller for people who don't like reading thrillers. Once Julia finally makes up her mind to detect, the mystery is engrossing, if unwieldy (too many shadowy hands pulling strings).
But whenever interest in the plot flags or Julia's pompous husband bores (which is frequently), Carter comes through with a description of what it's like to be one of five African-American families living in a wealthy white enclave or else he uncorks a pithy saying by Julia's grandmother, a grande dame of Harlem high society. "Granny Vee used to say that if you married a man because you wanted him to take care of you, you ran the risk that he would."
I would cheerfully read a whole book on the fabulous Granny Vee, even if the snobs in Julia's small town don't appreciate her. "Granny Vee's Harlem locutions, shaped to the rhythm of an era when the race possessed a stylish sense of humor about itself, would not have gone over well in the Landing, and Julia Carlyle had long schooled herself to avoid them."
Sadly, Granny Vee, long since dead, is actually more vivid than a lot of the living characters, many of whom get only one note to play. Julia's oldest son, Preston, who is implacable in his alienation from his parents, gets remarkably short shrift, and her younger son, Aaron, is only a name. Other characters, such as Art Lewin, a professor who makes his chapter fizz with effervescent glee, disappear too abruptly after proving that Carter has been paying attention during his decades at Yale. Take Lewin's rationalization of Zant's many, many affairs: "You can look at his preference for married women as a rational strategy for maximizing his sexual satisfaction while minimizing the risk of commitment." Spoken like a true economist.
As with Carter's first novel, the 2002 bestseller "The Emperor of Ocean Park," "New England White" operates as much as an examination of race and class consciousness among what the Yale law professor frequently calls "the darker nation" as it does as a mystery.
And it is there that the novel shines. Carter seems aware of his strengths, and as a result, African-American social clubs, such as the Ladybugs to which Julia belongs, get more intense scrutiny than the forensic evidence. While such digressions may detract from the plot, they add enormously to the enjoyment of the novel.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.