An astute mystery about racial injustice

Chanelle Benz won my admiration two years ago with her collection of short stories The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead. The individual plots are as varied as their settings, eschewing themes of modern-day relationships and lost souls typically explored in short story collections. One of my favorite stories takes place at an English monastery in the 16th century. A monk must denounce his Abbott and deny his vow of obedience under Thomas Cromwell’s declaration of the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge. In my review, I described Benz’s stories as mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of time and place.

The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz

Benz shines again in her first novel The Gone Dead. It’s a perceptive mystery that follows lead character Billie James as she investigates the circumstances concerning her father’s death. She has no reason to suspect foul play in his accident that happened 30 years ago in 1972 – not until she inherits his shack in the Mississippi Delta, a former plantation tenant house her grandmother bought from the land-owning McGees.

The family history and relations are complicated. Billie is a grant writer for a nonprofit in Philadelphia. She’s the daughter of an inter-racial marriage which, in 1967, was a felony in Mississippi. Hence, her white mother, a medieval studies expert, and her father, a black poet and activist, married in Pennsylvania. Why Cliff James left his literary life in Harlem for his family home in Mississippi in 1972 is unknown. He died walking in the woods where he fell and hit his head. So Billie thought, until she arrives in Greendale to take over the shack. She visits her father’s childhood friend, Jerry Hopsen, who refers to the night of the accident and four-year-old Billie as missing.

[Hopsen] stares at her. ‘They couldn’t find you when they found your daddy, so they put a picture of you up on the news. Ain’t nobody tell you?’

Billie doesn’t remember any of it, and so her pursuit of answers begins.

A great strength of this layered mystery is Benz’s ability to bring the Mississippi Delta to life on the written page. The paralyzing heat of the deep south, watered armchairs sagging on front porches, “flea markets as quiet as the grave and trailers on stilts alternating with shacks sunk into the ground,” broken lawn mowers in the yard, listless residents staring out toward the road and the hovering, bitter edge of racism immerse us in the suffocating setting that works against Billie. Lola, Billie’s cousin, warns her to be careful in this place where residents are still angry about losing the Civil War. The family roots of Jim McGee, Billie’s nearest neighbor, go back to the days of slavery and connect to Billie’s ancestors. The atmospheric tension alone demands we worry.

Local residents resent a stranger nosing into someone who’s been dead and gone for too long to think about anymore. Even Billie’s Uncle Dee, Cliff’s brother, avoids talking about the night Cliff died and seems uncooperative. Nevertheless, he takes her to the Avalon where Cliff was seen that night, a now abandoned bar off a dirt road in a soybean field. Responding to Billie’s questions, Uncle Dee tells her to let it go.

Way I see it, they ain’t no point in dragging up something happen thirty years ago when I’m trying to make it through today.

Billie doesn’t give up. She chases the puzzle pieces by persistently seeking out and questioning the people who knew Cliff James, going to their homes and businesses and finding them in local bars. Jim McGee clearly knows more than he’s telling Billie. Cliff’s girlfriend Carlotta believes the police are protecting somebody. The local sheriff tries to shut Billie down, claiming Cliff James may have committed suicide.

‘See I say this because it’s real common that when the notion of suicide enters the picture, a family can’t imagine their loved one taking their own life and so they often want it to be something else, anything else, even foul play.’

Meanwhile, Billie has discovered a chapter from her father’s unpublished memoir and contacts Dr. Melvin Hurley, the literary scholar working on her father’s biography. Excited to get his hands on the manuscript, Dr. Hurley arrives in Greendale and partners with Billie in her investigative inquiries.

The plot leans on Billie’s many conversations to move it forward. The technique is similar to what we see in TV dramas when characters walk through hallways to communicate important facts in between action scenes — only this story delivers few action scenes. With all the talk, the whodunit and why play out as an astute inquiry, even in the final scenes, when those unhappy with Billie’s prying come after her.

There are confrontations, but still, the death of Cliff James gets resolved in a way that’s more interview than drama. It would be a problem if not for being enclosed in such richly developed surroundings, the ingenious story line and the author’s tight, insightful grasp on the human need for justice, whether that’s of a 16th century monk or a 21st century daughter investigating her father’s death.

The Gone Dead by Chanelle Benz is published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Pubishers. A version of this review was broadcast on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM in central Ohio.