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A murder mystery told in black and white


New England White
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, 55 8 pp., $26.95

It is November in New England, and it is snowing.

A husband and wife are driving home from a party. They are a power couple by any standards, but among African-Americans, they are one of the power couples. Lemaster Carlyle is the president of an unnamed Ivy League university (not Yale) in the mythical town of Elm Harbor (not New Haven). He has worked in the White House and could be the next attorney general. His wife, Julia, is deputy dean of the divinity school at the same university.

But power is not on their minds as they speed along the snowy back roads. They are talking about their daughter, who is "not setting fires anymore." A troubled child, then. Despite the privileged world they inhabit, life for the Carlyles is not perfect.

Moments later, a skid sends them into a ditch. And that's when they find the body: Kellen Zant, an African-American professor of economics and a former lover of Julia 's .

So begins "New England White," the second novel by Yale law professor and legal scholar Stephen L. Carter. On the surface, it's a murder mystery. Who killed Kellen ? On a deeper level, it's about power. Who has it? Who uses it? And how does it flow between the "paler nation," as Carter so delicately puts it, and the "darker nation" of which he is quickly becoming one of the most resonant voices in fiction ?

The answers to these questions make for a novel filled with rich characters and fascinating insights into both "nations ." And if the plot unfolds a bit slowly, it's because Carter has such a large story to tell, so many characters to bring to life, and so many doors to open onto the African-American upper-middle class. (In an afterword, he tells us that social groups like the Ladybugs and exclusive men's clubs like the Empyreals are fictional, but they sure seem real.)

After the accident, Julia begins to suspect that her daughter's mental breakdown and the death of Kellen are somehow connected to the murder of a girl in Elm Harbor 30 years before. To understand her daughter and exorcise the ghost of her former lover, Julia follows certain connections, which she fears may lead to her own husband and his friends in the power corridors of both "nations."

Julia's quest for the truth will lead her to a deeper understanding of her society, her family, and herself. And she will announce late in the book that she likes the woman she is becoming. So do we.

But after 137 pages, there is too much plot for Carter to convey through Julia's point of view alone, so he introduces the director of campus safety: a big, tough-minded African-American detective named Bruce Vallely. We like him, too, which is good because about half the subsequent action unfolds through his eyes.

The story picks up momentum with Bruce's appearance, and his clashes with the white power structure are among the best in the novel.

But often, as Julia and Bruce pursue clues, meet suspects, and evade bad guys, Carter lets his characters talk a bit too much -- about the murder victim (an offstage character you'd love to meet just once), about the past, about the conspiracy, and about themselves. Of course, most of them are academics or politicians, so they love to talk. Carter has that part right. And there are so many clues -- a mirror and its fragments, a diary and its missing pages, anagrams -- that someone has to keep it all straight for us. However, when the talk takes us across the same narrative turf we've crossed with other characters from other angles, as happens more than once here, a scene can begin to feel a little like part of a deposition.

But read on, because many scenes crackle with suspense, like Julia's efforts to explore the divinity school archives after hours. And the scenes between Julia , a passionate woman, and Lemaster, her stonewalling husband, are alive to the truth of marriage.

Secondary characters pop off the page, too: There's Byron Dennison , the ancient politician, who "retained an insolent heft across the shoulders and a determined set to his jowly yellow jaw that reminded you of the power he once wielded in American politics." There's Mitch H uebner, the town recluse with the vicious dog, the shotgun, and the taste for beer in the morning. And there are many others.

Though Carter takes his time getting there, it all makes perfect sense in the end. He is too careful a storyteller for it to be otherwise. And it all makes a grander point ; he is too ambitious a novelist to miss that. In the quest for political power, the elite of the darker nation have learned many skills from their paler counterparts, and they have always known that " patience can be a strategy all by itself."

And patience will reward readers of "New England White." At times, you may feel that you are sitting with a lawyer who is determined to get at every fact, then turn it over and examine it from every angle in discovery. But in the long run, you'll be glad Carter's so thorough, because not only will you know who done it, but you'll see the big picture, too.

William Martin is the author, most recently, of "The Lost Constitution ."