Reed Arvin's mystery-thriller Blood Of Angels is set in the heart of the "new South," in Nashville, where an influx of Latin, Asian, and African immigrants has inflamed old racial biases. As the book begins, a Sudanese refugee well-respected by his peers has been accused of raping and murdering a white stripper, and the working-class whites in one of Nashville's oldest, poorest neighborhoods want justice to be swift and preferably cruel. But the Metro/ Davidson County district attorney's office and lead prosecutor Thomas Dennehy have reason to be cautious. A closed case—a capital case—was recently called into question after another man stepped forward to confess to the crime. So while talk-radio hosts rouse the rabble over immigration and race-mixing, an army of anti-death-penalty advocates floods into the city to exact the maximum political capital out of the prospect of a state executing the wrong man.
Pretty quickly—maybe too quickly—Blood Of Angels inches away from the race angle and becomes a spirited debate over the death penalty. Dennehy gets romantically involved with a defense witness, activist preacher Fiona Towns, and their clash of convictions forms the spine of Arvin's book. The outcome of the two legal cases aren't too hard to guess, but Arvin's ultimate opinion of capital punishment remains in doubt throughout, as he sets up the different sides of the argument, leaning heavily on the opinions of the tough, crafty old bastards who bring in the bad guys.
Too bad, then, that those characters are such characters, and that the trail of clues in both murders leads to the kind of brilliant villain who only pops up in bestsellers. Arvin captures the flavor of middle Tennessee and the complexity of the law, but he steps away from reality whenever he pitches to genre fans. Any serious conversation about the death penalty gets hopelessly skewed when there's a fictional monster on the loose. Still, Arvin is about as reliable as any page-turner craftsman working today, and he at least keeps his deeper themes in play throughout. He traces how murder begets justice, which can be a different kind of murder, and he ponders how difficult it is to assign blame in crimes of passion, since nearly everyone alive has reached a point where actions and emotions are impossible to control.