Lemaster Carlyle is a Barbadian immigrant, a devout High
Anglican and an Ivy-League graduate who now heads up the university
he attended. In the hands of a lesser novelist than Stephen L.
Carter (in whose THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK the Carlyles first
appeared, as minor characters), Lemaster might easily deteriorate
into a quirk-riddled shallow caricature.
Fortunately, Carter does not allow Lemaster to seem silly (just the
opposite, in fact). That’s important, because we need to
understand what his wife Julia is up against when she realizes that
the murdered man (who was once her lover) she and her husband find
one snowy night knew a few things about her husband’s college
roommates, two of whom are now a powerful senator and the current
Julia Carlyle --- First Lady of the administration, mother of four,
associate dean at the divinity school and daughter of a fascinating
and upper-class Harlem dynasty --- finds herself embroiled in a
complicated mystery for reasons relating to all of her roles and
identities. Living in “the heart of whiteness” as they
do, the Carlyles have adopted many mores and manners of the white
upper-class by which they are surrounded, including leaving the
urban university city of Elm Harbor for the tony village of TK
Landing, where their pretentious new McMansion raises eyebrows on
both sides of the racial divide.
But as Julia tries to figure out what dead economics Professor
Kellen Zant meant by the “surplus” he left behind (his
clues all involve mirrors, Julia’s preferred collectible),
she comes to understand that living in “the heart of
whiteness” does not confer a white heart. If she is to save
her troubled teenaged daughter, trust in her husband of two decades
and be true to her own soul, Julia will have to come to terms with
her own past and find a new future path.
This sounds like a lot, and it is. However, Carter loops and twists
his plotlines and character development so deftly that the reader
never feels manipulated (as in some clue-dense mystery novels) but
rather led, just as during a first-class university lecture. (If
you didn’t already know that Carter is a law professor at
Yale, you’d figure it out by the end.) Sometimes the leading
is a little too slow or a bit too stuffy or both --- but as you
watch the strands of the plot fuse into a first-class detective
story, ultimately you don’t mind.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on January 12, 2011
New England White