Inspired by the tragic 1994 Susan Smith incident in North Carolina, Richard Price sought to understand the social and cultural effects of a heinous crime cruelly exploited by a headline-thirsty media and insensitive political opportunists without regard for truth on a mid-sized American city fraught with racial tensions. The result of his curiosity is his latest and most accomplished novel, Freedomland, which continues his astute explorations of race, power and intricate human relationships in the same neighborhood that was the setting of his celebrated work, Clockers.
When Brenda Martin, a young white single mother, alleges her vehicle was car-jacked by a black man near the infamous Armstrong housing projects, every person with an ambition or an agenda comes forth to take unfair advantage of the situation. Complicating matters is the fact that according to the grief-stricken mother, her 4-year-old son, now missing, was asleep in the backseat of the car at the time of the hijacking. The city is cleaved in two along racial lines, with the residents of the African-American neighborhood of Dempsy squaring off against the whites of the blue-collar neighborhood of Gannon. A false arrest of a black man only inflames the volatile atmosphere, pushing events to the brink of violence.
In the hands of a less capable novelist, this book could have emerged as cheap melodrama, but Price tinkers with the currently blurred format of the American whodunit, fashioning a penetrating study of his three leading characters. The focus of the town's pity and compassion, Martin is revealed as a complex, troubled woman with several grim secrets tucked away in her past. Nothing touches the heart like the abduction or death of a young child. But nothing here is as it seems, which is what Detective Lorenzo Council, assigned to the case, instinctively feels in his gut. He has split loyalties. His sentiments are with the residents of the Armstrong projects, where he grew up and where his mother still lives, but his duty is to uphold the law. Council's task of ferreting out the truth is constantly hampered by the media, especially the dogged sleuthing of Jesse Haus, a white reporter out to build a reputation from the Martin case. She will do whatever it takes to carve out a niche for herself on the front page above the fold. Like Council, Haus believes Martin knows more than she is saying. As this unlikely pair struggles to solve the crime, others outside the two warring communities stir up more rancor by appealing to the irrational and the bigoted.
The skill of a premier novelist such as Price comes in his ability to hold the reader's attention as he continually shocks and surprises with a rapid series of brutally frank scenes. The pacing is fierce. He never lets up. He dissects the growing controversy surrounding the crime, studying it under a microscope like a lab researcher, ultimately satirizing our national obsession with anything sordid and provocative. The dirtier, the better.
However, the climax of Freedomland fulfills all of the criteria of the modern mystery fable, permitting Price to insert a few twists and turns near the wild conclusion, leaving the reader breathless but satisfied.