Wow. Jeff Stetson has written a book that deals with intense issues
and tackles the weighty concerns of ethics and morality, reminding
us of all-too-present American racism --- all while offering a
suspenseful story. I wasn't halfway through BLOOD ON THE LEAVES
when I realized that it would go on my list of "best first
mysteries of 2004." This is one helluva story.
Professor Martin Matheson, whose father is a preacher (and who
named his son, yes, after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) is a popular
and highly controversial teacher of a course in which he presents
20th century southern history, naming names of white residents of
Mississippi who were usually acquitted (if brought to trial at all)
of killing, torturing and lynching black people 30-40 years ago.
When several of those individuals he has named are killed, the
community erupts --- well mostly it's the legal community that
erupts. Matheson is arrested and charged with murder.
The prosecuting attorney, James Reynolds, who knows Matheson, is
black; the defense attorney, Todd Miller, whose choice to become a
civil rights lawyer caused his father to disown him, is white.
Reynolds' boss, a political deadbeat in the prosecutor's office, is
cruelly drawn but believable; there are those who are in politics
and law to fight for victims and there are those who are in it for
political gain, power and influence, and who would far prefer to
deal with office politics than the actual laws they're supposed to
This story contains a great legal thriller and the courtroom scenes
move well, providing drama and just enough surprises --- again,
Stetson is showing a lot of skill for someone who, while certainly
no stranger to writing, is new to mystery fiction. I did have some
problems with the presentation of the legal case, though; I thought
that the prosecution's case was extremely weak, so that even as a
reader I felt strongly about who would win and who would lose.
There is some ambiguity to a few characters, but for the most part,
the bad guys are pure evil while the good guys (and you get to
decide who they are) show a fair amount of depth. The suspense
lasts until the book's final word. I'm not entirely sure that I
bought the ending one hundred percent, but then again I'm not sure
that I didn't; the point here, I believe, is not to walk away
satisfied, but to continue to question what happened, and why, and
who was ultimately responsible for the deaths in this book, both
the recent ones and those from the not-too-distant past.
Perhaps it is Stetson's experience as a playwright that
helps to make the dialogue and pacing so effective. The nature of
the crimes forces the reader to think about murky issues. What
liability does someone have if they name names of murderers who got
off during some of the worst times in recent memory? What
responsibility does the law have for protecting people who
might be on some sort of weird hit list? Is Matheson
responsible for the acts, perhaps, of his fired-up students? What
if he was wrong about someone? Matheson is just enough of a puzzle;
he isn't shy about his feelings and is aware of the turmoil he has
created --- and he is proud of it. He loves teaching and making
people think --- even in jail, where he seems to me a little too
saintly --- but he knows, just knows, that the
students are not responsible for the rash of ugly killings. The
'50s and '60s are brought back to vivid memory to the characters of
the book and the reader. It's within my lifetime that the blatancy
of southern racism was confronted, and it's still difficult to read
some of the scenes in this book that confirm that in Mississippi,
as elsewhere, bigotry and hatred not only exist, but thrive.
A few of the characters are familiar in some ways --- I especially
appreciate attorney Miller, the white civil rights lawyer, but all
are worth reading about. James Reynolds is acutely aware of the
times and of his actions. The conflicts of belief and the rule of
law, and the pressures of living in the south and holding certain
beliefs about race, are well drawn.
This was not an easy book to read. The descriptions are
often ugly and frightening, and you cannot pretend that, at least
now, all is well; racism and hatred are still alive --- even if
sometimes the victim's color or name might change. Stetson at times
may be a little preachy, and obvious --- it's hard not to be with a
book about racism and lynching, guilt and history --- but he also
can be subtle and, at times, witty. BLOOD ON THE LEAVES makes you
think; we need more books like this.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter (firstname.lastname@example.org) on December 22, 2010