January 18, 2010
DEAD WITNESSES TELL NO TALES
Bland’s novels are also about the milieu in which the crime occurred. The theme of Tell No Tales, the seventh novel in her Marti MacAlister series, is racial prejudice.
Homicide detective Marti MacAlister and paramedic Ben Walker are on their honeymoon when she gets a call to return to Lincoln Prairie to help identify a “mummy” found in the closet of an abandon theater. The medical examiner describes the “mummy” as a Black female. The discovery of the body and the murder of “an elderly, mentally ill recluse” opens their investigation into the 30 year old murders of the “mummy” and a Black woman named Dawn Taborn.
Barnabas Cheney, the recluse, is a member of the wealthy Cheney family who at one time owned several buildings in downtown Lincoln Prairie, including the theater where the body was found and the building in which Barnabas lived. Of Barnabas’s few possessions, only a silver picture frame containing a picture of his family and a watch that belonged to his grandfather are missing.
Evan Armstrong, an antiques dealer who had an office in the same building and coveted the antique picture frame, is a suspect until he is found murdered.
The key to Barnabas’s place and the missing watch are found on Ed Logan, a vagrant, leading the detectives to think he may have killed Barnabas. However, when he is found murdered, they wonder if they’re dealing with more than one killer.
The connection of Barnabas’s family to the theater where the “mummy” was found and the revelation that he liked Black women lead the detectives consider the possibility that he might have been involved in the murder of the two women. However, the investigation reveals James Farland, the Black janitor at the theater, was tried and convicted for the murder of Dawn Taborn and suspected of killing the “mummy” and that he was recently released from prison. The suggestion that Farland wanted to prevent Barnabas from telling what he may have seen thirty years ago makes him a suspect.
To Marti the lack of sufficient evidence in the arresting officer’s report convinces her that Farland was convicted because he is Black. Her opinion causes some tension between her and Vik because the arresting officer was Curly, now retired, who was a surrogate father to him when his own father started drinking. He refuses to believe Curly would have done a poor job investigating the murders and certainly would not have helped convict the wrong man.
Marti explains that she is “not trying to take anything away from Curly or his record as a cop. All I’m saying is that this happened at a particular time and within a specific social context, one vastly different from life as we know it now. That’s all I am saying. Can you accept that?”
She notes that in the culture context of the 1960s, no White person, not even cops, feared calling a Black person “nigger.” The polite term White folks used was “colored.”
Tell No Tales relates the history of African American settlers in Lincoln Prairie. Marti, knowing the moral authority of the church in the community, reasons that since adultery and fornication would get a member thrown out of church, and all the members supported Farland, he didn’t kill Taborn and didn’t have a sexual relation with her, as Curly’s report suggests.
This difference of opinion strains their relationship but Marti doesn’t ask for a new partner. She tries to make Vik at least look at Curly objectively. His review of Curly’s cases shows that the perps Curly arrested and got convicted were all Black, and the evidence was skimpy or nonexistent.
When he asks the prosecuting attorney about the Farland case, the attorney tells him “that was 1964. A colored woman was found dead in the janitor’s closet in a movie theater. A colored man was the janitor. He ran. Now you tell me who did it if wasn’t him?” The attorney admits collusion between him, Curly, and the judge.
The friction between Marti and Vik maintain the suspense as they try to find the real killer.
Bland gives the reader a little more of the domestic side of Marti and Vik. Marti’s mother comes to Lincoln Prairie to help with the children while Marti is on her honeymoon, but declines to live with them because she believes they should have some room to get know each other.
Vik, worried about his wife Mildred who has MS, stays on the job while his son and daughter and Mildred’s sister look after her.
The domestic stuff gives the story authenticity—the cops not only worry about the dangers they face on the job but also about their families.