January 27, 2008

The Long Reach of Justice

A common element in crime/detective fiction by Black American writers is Black American history. Sometimes the history is used as background to set the context of present day events. Sometimes it is the center of the story in which the long arm of justice reaches back in the past to rectify an injustice that affects the present. The Twelfth Card falls under the latter category.

The twelfth card of the title is the Hanged Man card in the Tarot and refers to the Norse god Odin. The card signifies the quest for spiritual enlightenment. To Rhyme and his team, the man hanging upside down by one foot seems to indicate something bad. This clue is one of the many ways in which Deaver weaves the diversions into the plot.

The Twelfth Card is the first Jeffery Deaver novel that I have read. Deaver, a White writer, has created a Black main character, criminalist Lincoln Rhyme, a quadriplegic who works from his wheel chair in his apartment. He can move only the index finger on his left hand to steer his chair. Like the traditional cerebral detectives, he is single-minded when on a case. He rarely meets “with perpetrators face to face. For him, a scientist, the only passion in his job was the game itself, the pursuit, not the physical incarnation of the suspect.” Working with him full time is Amelia Sachs, a New York Police officer. Whenever the department asks him to take on a case, he has at his disposal the personnel he needs.

In The Twelfth Card Rhyme is called in to solve the mystery of why someone wants to kill 16 year old high school student Geneva Settles, who is researching her ancestor, a freedman who lived and owned property in Manhattan 140 years ago? Once he gets involved in the case, Rhyme realizes that he has two problems. He and his team must protect the teenager from a hit team while simultaneous solving a 140 year old murder. As the evidence accumulates, Rhyme realizes that he is matching wits with the leader of the hit team, a White, cold-blooded, expert killer referred to as Unsub 109. Despite the terrible things Unsub 109 does, we can’t help but admire him for his skill and intelligence.
Deaver’s outstanding research on the history of Black Americans in New York makes his descriptions of the social milieu in Manhattan in the 19th century believable.

Deaver lectures us on so-called “Black English,” or “African American vernacular English.” The lecture is unnecessary and actually mars what is a very good story. Filtering the lecture through the conscious of Geneva doesn’t fool us into thinking the sentiments expressed aren’t those of the author.

Geneva is thinking about her friend Lakeesha who is not really ghetto but pretends she is by talking Black:
The clues were obvious to Gen: if you listened closely you could tell that standard English was her first language. She was like those black stand-up comics who sound like homies in their act but they get the patter wrong. The girl might say, “I be at Sammy’s last night.” But somebody really talking ebonics—the new politically correct phrase was “African- American vernacular English”—wouldn’t say that; they’d say “I was at Sammy’s.” “B” was only used for ongoing or future activity, like “I be working at Blockbuster every weekend.” Or: “I be going to Houston with my aunt next month.
It is difficult to accept that a 16 year old teenager, even a very smart one, would think in such terms. She may know or realize her friend is “fronting” but is not likely to analyze so deeply. The lecture doesn’t advance the plot or contribute to development of the character of Geneva.

The Twelfth Card is enjoyable but is about 200 pages too long even in large print.