The term beach read has come to mean the kind of brain bubblegum that is heavy on plot but thin on style, characterization and other literary attributes, but it has always seemed to me that the less constrained days of summer are actually the best time to read a book of substance. Stephen L. Carter's latest novel, New England White, is the perfect middle ground abundantly entertaining and capacious in size (as summer books are supposed to be, right?), it wraps a textured exploration of issues of race and class within a neat puzzler of a murder mystery. A number of the characters in New England White appeared in Carter's first novel, the critically extolled bestseller The Emperor of Ocean Park, most notably Julia and Lemaster Carlyle, who here take center stage. Lemaster, fresh from a stint as a White House advisor, has assumed the presidency of a Connecticut university that bears more than a passing resemblance to Yale (where Carter is a law professor). Julia is one of the deans of the divinity school. What makes this academic power couple unique is that they are black.
Like any good mystery, this one begins with a murder, when Julia and Lemaster find the body of a man along a snow-laden back road late one night. The dead man was Kellen Zant, a rising star economist, also black and someone the Carlyles knew quite well. As the internecine plot untwines, we learn that Julia and Kellen had been lovers some 20 years before and, as Julia will discover, Kellen had kept the torch blazing. Disturbed by any connection that might be presumed between her and Kellen's death, and the harm that presumption could cause her family, Julia tries to figure out what the economist was working on that might have gotten him killed. She is shocked and disturbed to discover that Kellen had been in contact with her teenage daughter, Vanessa. Acting out her own version of troubled adolescence, Vanessa has become obsessed with a local cold case, the death of another teenage girl decades before. That girl was white and her murder was pinned on a young black man.
These plot elements will prove to be connected, of course, but the tentacles of the crime go further afield, reaching into the highest echelons of power, to which Lemaster is a card-carrying member. These links will become patently clear to Bruce Vallely, the former cop who now serves as head of campus security. Bruce has been ordered by the powers that be to conduct his own unofficial investigation into Kellen's death, but he rightly suspects that he is expected to bury anything he discovers that could damage the university. It would be churlish to give away more of this intriguing plot. But the plot, as well worked through and compelling as it is, is merely one component of Carter's skills as a novelist. What sets New England White apart is its meticulous depiction of the African-American upper class, a subculture that is seldom considered in mainstream literature. The world of black privilege into which Julia has been born (her grandmother was a premier hostess of the old Harlem days ) and to which the Barbados-born Lemaster has ascended, is rife with its own snobberies and prejudices. Like the tweedy whites who have always run things from the sanctity of their ivy-covered towers, members of the Clan have long exerted their own circumscribed influence. Still, the color of their skin has, until recently, kept them from positions of utmost power.
As a lawyer who writes best-selling novels, Carter has inevitably been compared to Grisham and Turow, but it is a facile comparison at best. Carter's graceful, cultivated narrative abilities are light-years beyond the scope of Grisham's flat, formulaic prose, and while Turow shares a certain psychological depth-perception with Carter, his books are still largely legal thrillers. While he never disregards the necessities of plot, Carter writes about much more: character, class and culture. And he does it very well. New England White should find its way into the carry-ons and beach bags of a lot of contented readers this summer. Novelist Robert Weibezahl lives in California.