April 7, 2007
In plain brown wrapper Karen Grigsby Bates showed promise in her handling of the detective genre. Complicating plot with five corpses in Chosen People she continues to show promise and is willing to take risks. Five corpses is a lot of dead people to hold the reader’s interest.
The first corpse is that of author James Simpson Lee Hastings, Jr. who bleeds to death from a stab wound in front of the bookstore where he is signing autographs of his book Chosen People. Los Angeles journalist, Alexa Powell, while researching his life for an article, tries to answer the question of who wanted him dead and discovers many folks among the Black haute bourgeoisie disliked him because his book peels the cover off the Black upper middle class. During her investigation, two more corpses turn up. Myron Bournewell, a white philanthropist jumped or is thrown off a building, and Lenora Walker, wife of Hiram Walker, a prominent Black architect and friend of Myron’s, is attacked and killed by three pit bulls.
Unlike in plain brown wrapper in which the relationship between Alex and Paul and their questioning of suspects generates suspense, Bates legitimately generates and sustains suspense in Chosen People by having Alex investigate a possible connection between the deaths of Hastings, Bournewell, and Lenora Walker. The list of suspects becomes longer when she learns from a Black publisher that before his death, Hastings had written a second soon-to-be published book exposing the “down low” brothers among the Black elite. Hastings was gay and HIV positive and had infected his fiancé from a prominent Black family. He also had a relationship with Hiram Walker, who subsequently infected his wife Lenora and his friend Bournewell. Someone among the gay brothers might also want him dead.
The fourth and fifth corpses turn up in the last fourth of the novel. While interviewing Martha Dexter, the dowager of an old Black upper Middle class family at her request, Alex discovers the old lady has poisoned her niece, Shelia, who was engaged to Hastings. The old lady commits suicide after she attempts to poison Alex to prevent her from exposing the shame the family will suffer if it becomes known that Shelia was engaged to a gay man. Alex wrecks her car and injures herself trying to escape from the old lady.
Bates’s second novel has the same flaw as the first. Alex doesn’t solve the murders. Hospitalizing Alex relieves Bates of the necessity of having her actually solve the three murders. As she did not in plain brown wrapper, Alex thinks like a detective when she figures out that the “Simp Hastings seemed to be the genesis of it all, the hub from which everything radiated.” However, she learns from her Los Angeles police detective friend that the killer confessed to killing Hastings and that the death of Lenora Walker was a case of mistaken identity. The puzzle of why the killer confessed is left unsolved. A good detective story allows the detective to detect, which means he or she must figure out the whodunit and why before the confession.
As for the death of Bournewell, the reader is left to speculate whether it was murder or suicide.
Bates may not always hit the right notes in her storytelling, but her ability to give the reader a look into the class structure of the Black community recommends the two novels. In plain brown wrapper, she gives readers a peek into the Black middle class. In Chosen People, she pulls the covers off the Black upper middle class. Yes, Alex’s love interest, Paul Butler, reappears.