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BOOK REVIEW:

The scribe : a novel

Call Number: 
M
Matthew Guinn received an Edgar Award nomination for Best First Novel for The Resurrectionist( 2013).   His second novel is a dark story of murder and race relations with black magic overtones, set in Atlanta in 1881.
The central character, Thomas Canby, is a former member of the Atlanta police force, now living in bitter exile as sheriff of a tiny town in the hills of northern Georgia after being unjustly accused of taking a bribe four years earlier.  Canby grew up in Atlanta, but he is resented by many for his service while a teenager in the Union Army--though his sole motivation for joining up was a naïve notion that serving in a blue uniform might enable him to murder General Sherman, whom he still blames for the death of his beloved schoolmaster father, killed in the Union's siege of the city in 1864.
 
When Canby receives a telegram from his former colleague Vernon Thompson, now the Atlanta police chief, asking for help on a case, his first inclination is to tell him to go to hell.  But Canby respects Vernon, and he realizes that this may be his chance to reestablish his career--and to finally marry his longtime love, Julia Preston.  Vernon explains that two prominent black Atlanta businessmen have been viciously murdered; each had a letter (M for the first, A for the second) carved in his forehead, and it appears that the killer will continue until he finishes his "spelling bee".   Since the police assume the perpetrator is also African-American, the city's lone black officer, Cyrus Underwood (recently promoted from janitor) has been assigned to the case, but no other member of the force will work with him.  Canby has no qualms about an interracial partnership, but he must also deal with the fact that Underwood himself is a potential suspect in the deaths.
The serial killings threaten to interfere disastrously with the approaching opening of the International Cotton Exposition--the bid of Atlanta's pre-War elite, The Ring, to prove that the city can thrive in the new non-slave economy, now that the carpetbaggers have been sent packing and the locals are in charge again.  The powers-that-be are anxious to have the case solved before Canby's old nemesis, General Sherman, shows up to attend--and they're definitely not convinced that Canby and Underwood are the men to do it.
 
Tensions increase as the killer strikes twice more--and these victims do not match the race and class of the first two.  Canby and Underwood find the case moving in unexpected directions, and there will be a lynching, a hanging, a drowning, and the unearthing of an empty coffin before some, but not all, questions are answered. Guinn's writing is strongly influenced by the dark crime stories so popular on today's TV drama shows, with their bizarre, violent characters and shocking twists at the end of each segment.  Those who like their mysteries filled with clever deductions and complex but neat solutions should not try this one; the motivations and reasoning of both heroes and villains are often unclear or baffling.  But the historical details of life in the post-Reconstruction Deep South  are fascinating and convincing, and readers who appreciate eerie, violent stories with lots of surprising twists and turns will keep flipping the pages.  I'm looking forward to the sequel that the author is already working on. 

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