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July 11-17, 2007

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'New England White'

New England White
(By Stephen L. Carter; Knopf; 556 pages; $26.95 cloth)

Universities are littered with secrets, clubby tribunals and petty jealousies, which is why they figure so often in murder mysteries. In his second novel, Stephen L. Carter takes the form of the campus potboiler and does it one better: using a murder to shine an unforgiving light onto how tension between the races—even in today's PC universities—remains the biggest secret of all. As the novel begins, the ex-lover of a university president's wife turns up dead, victim of an apparent robbery. Lemaster Carlyle, the school's arrogant self-made black president and keeper of more secrets than a White House aide (a position he once held), carefully keeps the story under control from afar. What he doesn't count upon is his wife's lingering interest in the murder. This situation—of a crime determinedly portrayed as not a crime—is a perfect metaphor for the ways in which race relations often get swept beneath the table. Carlyle's wife, Julia, feels the charge of this tacit lie most personally. The daughter of a former Harlem doyenne, class matters to her. In a memorable scene, Julia and her husband's cousin decide to go for a walk on a private beach accessible only to village residents. The guard stops her to remind her of the restriction. Julia, who lives in the village, reminds the young man she taught him eighth-grade science. She asks after his family, and he remembers her well. Then, as she turns to leave to walk the beach, he speaks up again. "Mrs. Carlyle," he says, "I still can't let you on the beach." As in his previous novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, Carter shows how within this wider universe exists a clannish world of upper-crust African-Americans, where pecking orders are as fastidiously maintained as they are in the most lock-jawed country clubs. But New England White is more than stylishly told anthropology. Carter expertly blends the events of the unfolding investigation with several emotional plot strands. Julia and Lemaster have children who are drifting away, a marriage that has gone on autopilot. It's a bravura performance of storytelling that doesn't feel at all like it's trying to teach us something—even when it is.

Review by John Freeman


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