In his second novel, New England White, Stephen L. Carter asks ‘”what if’” a few black men acquired power they could use to benefit the race?
Byron Dennison, mentor to the black president of the University in Elm Harbor, Lemaster Caryle, explains to the heroine, Julia Caryle, his concept of power:
Power has to be used, or it’s not real…If you use it, people decide you're a powerful person, they get accustomed to doing what you want, and that gives you more power. Just don't ever start trying to use it for justice. People are real, justice is abstract. Abstract is when the killing starts.
The incidents that will lead Julia to understand how a handful of Black men in a secret club called the Empyreals acquired and used power begins with the death of her ex-boyfriend, Kellen Zant. She and Lemaster are driving through heavy snow down a little used road on their way to pick up their daughter Vanessa from the movies when the car slides off the road into a ditch. Exiting the car, Julia sees a dead body lying in the snow and immediately recognizes the brilliant Black economist and professor at the university, Zant.
Julia, representing the university, attends Zant’s funeral in his Arkansas hometown. Mary Mallard, a white investigative reporter, accosts Julia and claims that Zant gave Mary the first two parts of what he called “the Surplus” and hinted that Julia would have the third part. Julia has no idea what she is talking about but soon learns that other people also think she has “the Surplus.” Zant, she further discovers, left coded clues only she can decipher.
During her search, Julia discovers “the Surplus” refers to a diary about a murder that happened 30 years ago. Gina Joule, the 17-year-old daughter of a professor at the university, was killed, and it was suspected that the current U. S. President and a U. S. Senator, both of whom, along with a third white student, were Lemaster’s roommates in college, might have been involved. DeShaun Moton, a 16-year-old boy black, was identified as the killer after police fatally shot him. The sheriff at the time didn’t believe DeShaun was the killer. However, he was ordered to close the case but left a diary.
The events take place during a presidential election year in which the two candidates are the U. S. President and the U. S. Senator. The people who covet the diary believe it contains dirt that could ruin one or the other of the candidates.
Julia’s is the main narrative voice. Another narrative voice is that of Bruce Vallely, the black director of campus security at the university, who, at the urging of the Secretary of the University, investigates Zant’s murder, ostensibly to keep news of any involvement of students from leaking to the press. While Julia searches for “the Surplus,” Bruce’s main concern is finding Zant’s killer. But it is Julia who confronts the killer and later learns who was the power behind the cover up of the murder of Gina Joule.
As many other African American writers of mystery fiction have done, Carter explores African American culture, especially class differences among those he calls “the darker nation.”
The Caryles own the symbol of the upper black middle class: a “Cadillac Escalade with all the extras, color regulation black, as befitted their role as the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost.”
And Julia constantly thinks about her position as an upper middle class woman of the “darker nation” living in Tyler’s Landing, a suburb in Harbor County, while the president’s mansion at the college is under renovation:
Here was the secret segregated truth at the heart of integration. No vandalism was committed. No crosses were burned. No epithets were uttered. The family was not attacked. It was simply ignored.
The Caryles are one of only five black families in the Landing.
Carter skillfully sustains the suspense in a well-constructed plot and satisfactorily ties up the loose ends. I didn’t, however, enjoy the novel.
Carter’s mannerism, first noticed in The Emperor of Ocean Park, of referring to black and white folks as the “darker nation” and “paler nation” respectively is annoying, as is showing page numbers only on the odd pages.
The character of the Caryles' oldest daughter, Vanessa, is unconvincing. Carter uses her to introduce the supernatural into the plot. She talks to the dead Gina to help Julia find clues.
In her search for the diary, Julia has to decipher backward writing with a mirror, anagrams, and other word games that Zant left for her alone. This is the stuff of spy novels.