Go to Homepage   David L. Robbins: Scorched Earth

 

Crescent Blues Book ViewsBantam (Trade Paperback), ISBN: 0-553-38179-2

Congenital deformities cause Nora Carol, the daughter of Elijah and Clare Waddell of Good Hope, Va., to die within minutes of her birth. To minimize the parents' grief, Clare's mother arranges with the Rev. Thomas Derby to bury the infant as early as possible in the graveyard of her family church, the Victory Baptist Church. No sooner is the child interred, however, than the deacons object, because Elijah Waddell is black: this is the "white folks' church." It's not that they're racists, you understand, but Nora Carol must be dug up and reburied at the nearby black folks' church.

Book: david l robbins, scorched earth
The night of the reburial, the Victory Baptist Church burns to the ground, and Elijah is found next to it, drunk, dancing for joy…but adamantly denying that he set the blaze.

No one believes him, of course. His situation worsens when a body is discovered among the ashes. Worse, the body is of the brutish local sheriff's daughter, who, the post-mortem reveals, experienced both a broken jaw and sex not long before death. Elijah stands accused of arson, rape and murder.

Nat Deeds, a lawyer who fled Good Hope and his job when his marriage fell apart, is called back to defend Elijah. Nat finds it difficult to believe Elijah's story, and the emotional turmoil caused by the presence of Nat's estranged wife Maeve hampers his ability to concentrate on the case. Yet slowly his opinions shift. With Maeve's encouragement and sometimes help, Nat unravels a tangle of corruption, hypocrisy, racism and deceit that long predates Nora Carol's birth. He also realizes both the truth of that fatal night and the possibility of at least rapprochement between himself and his

Book:david l robbins, war of the rats
That might possibly all sound standard enough stuff. But what makes Scorched Earth truly outstanding is that in no way can this be described as a legal thriller, as a crime novel or as belonging in any other neat genre category -- any more than, say, To Kill a Mockingbird could be so dismissed (and I was constantly reminded of that novel while reading Scorched Earth, even though the books aren't markedly similar). Robbins downplays the overtly dramatic elements in favor of an extremely complex plot in which they merely play a part. Characters, their interplay and the corruption of human weakness are portrayed to extraordinary depth, and all this done in a writing style that displays the richness and smoothness of a vintage port.

Yet don't get the idea that this is one of those novels you ought to read only because it's a "worthy literary achievement" or something equally dull. In fact, it's riveting. It's been a long while since I've been so held by a book; the bedroom lights burned late despite grumpy comments from the other half of the bed.

It's not often that, even before I've finished reading a novel in paperback, I go out and buy the hardback, but this is that kind of book, and so I did.

John Grant

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