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Stephen L. Carter: New England White

As a mystery writer, Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter hasn't advanced significantly from his debut novel, 2002's entertaining-but-stiff The Emperor Of Ocean Park. His second book is still too long, taking 550 pages to explore a politically charged murder at a Yale-like northeastern university, and its impact on the family of the college's well-connected president, Lemaster Carlyle. Carter's dialogue has improved—he seems to have drawn his character voices from the linguistic quirks of people he knows—but he still moves the story along at a leisurely pace, following Lemaster's wife Julia as she intermittently pieces together clues, driven by her sympathy for the victim, a man she once loved. Like his protagonist, Carter seems less interested in wrapping up "whodunit" than in figuring out why, and much of New England White's pokiness can be explained by the way Carter moves the pieces carefully into place, hinting that the murder is related to a three-decade-old scandal that may involve Lemaster's old college roommates: one a democratic senator, the other the president of the United States.

But while New England White's political dimension feels a little familiar—just the umpteenth iteration of power-and-how-it-affects-those-who-wield-it—the milieu remains every bit as nuanced and singular as it was in The Emperor Of Ocean Park. Carter writes about the lives and concerns of upper-class African-Americans with a sociologist's insight, detailing how paranoia and petty jealousies keep some wealthy black people from enjoying what they've earned. New England's innocent-person-gets-drawn-into-a-family-mystery premise plays out a bit too much like Emperor, with word games taking the place of the first book's chess puzzles; New England's protagonist has a different set of problems, but they're prompted by many of the same anxieties. Carter tells Julia's story from the inside, explaining the ramifications of every social slight, and dissecting her relationship with Lemaster, a chilly authoritarian who expresses his love for his wife by striving to keep her untroubled. And as New England White makes plain, "untroubled" is no person's lot in life, regardless of race or bank balance.


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