Gusick’s hero, Detective Darla Cavanaugh, became an instant favorite of mine when I read the screamingly funny Officer Elvis, and so when I saw that Random House Alibi was about to publish this third book in the series, I scrambled quickly over to Net Galley to snatch up a DRC. Though Gusick is a tremendously courageous writer, one that seeks to stand uncompromisingly on the side of the angels, this time he’s stepped over a line in the sand that was better left uncrossed. I look forward to the next book in the series, but am not sure I can recommend this one.
The book will be available to the public December 6, 2016.
Darla has been planning a leave of absence. She and her husband, a doctor that runs the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, have been unable to have a child of their own, and there’s a baby waiting for them in China. But she has to go quickly, or the adoption won’t go through. It is then that she receives a special request to investigate a murder. She says no; this is one time her family comes first. But the summons is from the governor. His daughter is dead, and he wants Darla to find out who did it.
This reviewer actually has an elderly relative that was tapped to investigate the murder of a governor’s aide in the 1980’s, and he didn’t want to do it either. There was a question of organized crime being involved, and it was dangerous. But as he pointed out at the time, there are some things you can’t say no to. It’s like being invited to tea with the queen; you have to go. And so it is with Darla.
By far the most endearing character here is Darla’s partner, Rita Gibbons:
“Rednecked Rita was…half a licorice stick short in the manners department, a deplorable character flaw in the state of Mississippi.”
When a witness that’s being interviewed coolly inquires as to whether Rita is a “Natchez Gibbons”, Rita tells her that she is actually a “Red Hills Trailer Park Gibbons”, from outside of Louisville. And oh, how I wanted to engage, because this character is enormously entertaining, but there’s a problem, and it is at the core of the story’s premise.
You see, at the beginning of the story, we learn that Caitlin Barnett, the governor’s adopted daughter, who is African-American, was found hanging from a tree on the campus of Ole Miss. And once we have a lynching—whether it’s racially motivated and a real lynching, or whether there’s an ulterior motive and perhaps the body was posed there to deceive us—we can’t have any fun.
Here’s my litmus test to see if I am overreacting: I imagine giving this novel to one of my African-American family members to read, and I imagine what their reaction to it would be. Would they give Gusick props for pointing out that racism is still alive and flourishing in American society? Would they be glad that he has raised the issue of the Confederate flag? Or would they be slightly queasy, as I was? And immediately I knew that I would never, ever ask any of them to read this book, and if I did, they would probably take my husband aside sometime soon and inquire as to whether I was on any strange new medications.
In other words…no. Once there’s a lynching, or the appearance of one in a story, there can be no giggles, and we can’t rock and roll. It’s a hot stove top kind of issue; it’s not something we can touch, whatever our fine ultimate intentions might be, if we’re going to be partying anytime soon.
I still admire Gusick. Who else would have the rare courage to open oh, so many cans, and release oh, so many worms? But if one has the heart of a lion, one also needs some judgment, and this is where his story comes undone.
Although I cannot recommend this book to you, I look forward to reading this author’s work in the future. He’s done great work before, and he’ll do it again.