By Michael H. Rubin – Met this author—a Baton Rouge-based lawyer—at a recent mystery writers’ conference and was fascinated by the premise of his brand new book. (And a bit awed that it was published by the prestigious LSU Press, which has created a nice website for it.) The story takes place in three time periods—in 1893, with Reconstruction ended, and the wounds of the Civil War a decade fresher than the end of the Vietnam War is now; in 1961, when Freedom Riders went South to push the Civil Rights movement; and a much briefer framing story set in current time.
Cottoncrest is the eponymous plantation in which the novel’s inciting events take place—the murder-suicide of a respected Civil War Colonel and his beautiful young wife. The book’s hero, Jewish peddler Jake Gold, in the course of his itinerant business interacts with everyone for miles about—the erudite Colonel, as well as black shantytown residents, poor white sharecroppers, and wily Cajun trappers. And with Gold’s egalitarian streak, he gets along with most of them, too—the honest ones.
Rubin portrays these complicated Louisiana social milieux convincingly, though I hardly had time to fully enjoy the richness of the lives he portrays because the plot was speeding me through the burning cane fields and down the treacherous bayous. Breakneck plots have a way of reaching implausible velocity, but not this one. Every danger and twist he describes is absolutely believable. Though the reader ends up unraveling the mystery behind the murders and the recurrence of the curse, the characters from the present-day scenes will never know what we know, for good and certain.
Rubin’s accomplishment is all the more impressive because this is his first novel. An impressive debut!