Murder in Reconstruction Atlanta

The Scribe: A Novel, by Matthew Guinn, (W. W. Norton & Company), 304 pages, release date 14 September, 2015

The Scribe is one of those can’t-put-it-down novels. Set in post-Civil War Atlanta, it pulls readers into a time of immense social turmoil and division. Plantations have lost their work forces; a few Blacks have managed to rise economically, earning both respect and hate; Atlanta is banking on an International Cotton Expedition to redeem itself in the world’s eyes and to draw in investment.

This novel’s central characters are an unlikely pair of investigators: Thomas Canby and Cyrus Underwood. Canby left Atlanta in disgrace three years before, unwilling to participate in the cover-up of criminal activity among the city’s upper classes. This makes him the perfect man to call in for an investigation that promises nothing but difficulty and that’s too sensitive for local police to handle. Underwood is Atlanta’s first Black police officer, added to the force against significant resistance and kept on the periphery of law enforcement (he is not, for example, allowed to carry a gun).

Canby and Underwood  investigate a string of murders that grow increasingly confusing. The first victims are wealthy Atlanta Blacks, but as others are killed, the murderer’s purpose becomes less and less clear. One thing all the murders have in common is the letter carved into the forehead of each victim.

The mystery here is engaging, but this is a book to read for its context as much as its plot. Guinn’s Atlanta comes to life like a many-limbed monster. The city’s economic elite are its arms: hiding, misrepresenting, interfering, strangling. This Atlanta may not be a comfortable place for readers to visit, but it is a fascinating one.

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