The author of The Emperor of Ocean Park, with the powers of observation and richness of plot and character, returns to the New England university town of Elm Harbor, where a murder begins to crack the veneer that has hidden the racial complications of the town’s past, the secrets of a prominent family, and the most hidden bastions of African-American political influence. And at the center: Lemaster Carlyle, the university president, and his wife, Julia Carlyle, a deputy dean at the divinity school–African Americans living in “the heart of whiteness.”
Lemaster is an old friend of the president of the United States. Julia was the murdered man’s lover years ago. The meeting point of these connections forms the core of a mystery that deepens even as Julia closes in on the politically earth-shattering motive behind the murder.
Relentlessly suspenseful, galvanizing in its exploration of the profound difference between allegiance to ideas and to people, New England White is a resounding confirmation of Stephen Carter’s gifts as a writer of fiction.
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Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is the author of the best-selling novel The Emperor of Ocean Park, and seven acclaimed nonfiction books, including The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion and Civility: Manner, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy. He and his family live near New Haven, Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One: Shortcut
On Friday the cat disappeared, the White House phoned, and Jeannie’s fever—said the sitter when Julia called from the echoing marble lobby of Lombard Hall, where she and her husband were fêting shadowy alumni, one or two facing indictment, whose only virtue was piles of money—hit 103. After that, things got worser faster, as her grandmother used to say, although Granny Vee’s Harlem locutions, shaped to the rhythm of an era when the race possessed a stylish sense of humor about itself, would not have gone over well in the Landing, and Julia Carlyle had long schooled herself to avoid them.
The cat was the smallest problem, even if later it turned out to be a portent. Rainbow Coalition, the children’s smelly feline mutt, had vanished before and usually came back, but now and then stayed away and was dutifully replaced by another dreadful creature of the same name. The White House was another matter. Lemaster’s college roommate, now residing in the Oval Office, telephoned at least once a month, usually to shoot the breeze, a thing it had never before occurred to Julia that Presidents of the United States did. As to Jeannie, well, the child was a solid eight years into a feverish childhood, the youngest of four, and her mother knew by now not to rush home at each spike of the thermometer. Tylenol and cool compresses had so far defeated every virus that had dared attack her child and would stymie this one, too. Julia gave the sitter her marching orders and returned to the endless dinner in time for Lemaster’s closing jokes. It was eleven minutes before ten on the second Friday in November in the year of our Lord 2003. Outside Lombard Hall, the snow had arrived early, two inches on the ground and more expected. As the police later would reconstruct the night’s events, Professor Kellen Zant was already dead and on the way to town in his car.
After. Big cushy flakes still falling. Julia and Lemaster were barreling along Four Mile Road in their Cadillac Escalade with all the extras, color regulation black, as befitted their role as the most celebrated couple in African America’s lonely Harbor County outpost. That, at least, was how Julia saw them, even after the family’s move six years ago out into what clever Lemaster called “the heart of whiteness.” For most of their marriage they had lived in Elm Harbor, largest city in the county and home of the university her husband now led. By now they should have moved back, but the drafty old mansion the school set aside for its president was undergoing renovation, a firm condition Lemaster had placed on his acceptance of the post. The trustees had worried about how it would look to spend so much on a residence at a time when funds to fix the classrooms were difficult to raise, but Lemaster, as always with his public, had been at once reasonable and adamant. “People value you more,” he had explained to his wife, “if it costs more to get you than they expected.”
“Or they hate you for it,” Julia had objected, but Lemaster stood his ground; for, within the family, he was a typical West Indian male, and therefore merely adamant.
They drove. Huge flakes swirled toward the windshield, the soft, chunky variety that signals to any New Englander that the storm is moving slowly and the eye is yet to come. Julia sulked against the dark leather, steaming with embarrassment, having called two of the alums by each other’s names, and having referred half the night to a wife named Carlotta as Charlotte, who then encouraged her, in that rich Yankee way, not to worry about it, dear, it’s a common mistake. Lemaster, who had never forgotten a name in his life, charmed everybody into smiling, but as anyone who has tried to raise money from the wealthy knows, a tiny sliver of offense can cut a potential gift by half or more, and in this crowd, half might mean eight figures.
Julia said, “Vanessa’s not setting fires any more.” Vanessa, a high-school senior, being the second of their four children. The first and the third—their two boys—were both away at school.
Her husband said, “Thank you for tonight.”
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I did, my love.” The words rapid and skeptical, rich with that teasing, not-quite-British lilt. “Did you hear what I said?” Turning lightly but swiftly to avoid a darting animal. “I know you hate these things. I promise to burden you with as few as possible.”
“Oh, Lemmie, come on. I was awful. You’ll raise more money if you leave me behind.”
“Wrong, Jules. Cameron Knowland told me he so enjoyed your company that he’s upping his pledge by five million.”
Julia in one of her moods, reassurance the last thing she craved. Clever wind whipped the snow into concentric circles of whiteness in the headlights, creating the illusion that the massive car was being drawn downward into a funnel. Four Mile Road was not the quickest route home from the city, but the Carlyles were planning a detour to the multiplex to pick up their second child, out for the first time in a while with her boyfriend, “That Casey,” as Lemaster called him. The GPS screen on the dashboard showed them well off the road, meaning the computer had never heard of Four Mile, which did not, officially, exist. But Lemaster would not forsake a beloved shortcut, even in a storm, and unmapped country lanes were his favorite.
“Cameron Knowland,” Julia said distinctly, “is a pig.” Her husband waited. “I’m glad the SEC people are after him. I hope he goes to jail.”
“It isn’t Cameron, Jules, it’s his company.” Lemaster’s favorite tone of light, donnish correction, which she had once, long ago, loved. “The most that would be imposed is a civil fine.”
“All I know is, he kept looking down my dress.”
“You should have slapped his face.” She turned in surprise, and what felt distantly like gratitude. Lemaster laughed. “Cameron would have taken his pledge back, but Carlotta would have doubled it.”
A brief marital silence, Julia painfully aware that tonight she had entirely misplaced the delicate, not-quite-flirty insouciance that had made her, a quarter-century ago, the most popular girl at her New Hampshire high school. Like her husband, she was of something less than average height. Her skin was many shades lighter than his blue-black, for her unknown father had been, as Lemaster insisted on calling him, a Caucasian. Her gray eyes were strangely large for a woman of her diminutive stature. Her slightly jutting jaw was softened by an endearing dimple. Her lips were alluringly crooked. When she smiled, the left side of her wide mouth rose a little farther than the right, a signal, her husband liked to say, of her quietly liberal politics. She was by reputation an easy person to like. But there were days when it all felt false, and forced. Being around the campus did that to her. She had been a deputy dean of the divinity school for almost three years before Lemaster was brought back from Washington to run the university, and her husband’s ascension had somehow increased her sense of not belonging. Julia and the children had remained in the Landing during her husband’s year and a half as White House counsel. Lemaster had spent as many weekends as he could at home. People invented delicious rumors to explain his absence, none of them true, but as Granny Vee used to say, the truth only matters if you want it to.
“You’re so silly,” she said, although, to her frequent distress, her husband was anything but. She looked out the window. Slickly whitened trees slipped past, mostly conifers. It was early for snow, not yet winter, not yet anything, really: that long season of pre-Thanksgiving New England chill when the stores declared it Christmas season but everybody else only knew it was cold. Julia had spent most of her childhood in Hanover, New Hampshire, where her mother had been a professor at Dartmouth, and she was accustomed to early snow, but this was ridiculous. She said, “Can we talk about Vanessa?”
“What about her?”
“The fires. It’s all over with, Lemmie.”
A pause. Lemaster played with the satellite radio, switching, without asking, from her adored Broadway show tunes—Granny Vee had loved them, so she did, too—to his own secret passion, the more rebellious and edgy and less commercial end of the hip-hop spectrum. The screen informed her in glowing green letters that the furious sexual bombast now assaulting her eardrums from nine speakers was something called Goodie Mobb. “How do you know it’s over?” he asked.
“Well, for one thing, she hasn’t done it in a year. For another, Dr. Brady says so.”
“Nine months,” said Lemaster, precisely. “And she’s not Vincent Brady’s daughter,” he added, slender fingers tightening ever so slightly on the wheel, but in caution, not anger, for the weather had slipped from abhorrent to atrocious. She glanced his way, turning down the throbbing music just in case, for a change, he wanted to talk, but he was craning forward, hoping for a better view, heavy flakes now falling faster than the wipers could clean. He wore glasses with steel rims. His goatee and mustache were so perfectly trimmed they might have been invisible against his smooth ebon flesh, except for the thousand flecks of gray that reshaped to follow the motion of his jaw whenever he spoke. “What a mistake,” said Lemaster, but it took Julia a second to work out that he was referring to the psychiatrist, and not one among the many enemies he had effortlessly, and surprisingly, collected during his six months as head of the univer...
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