A Pair of Historical Mysteries Evokes the Jim Crow South

Cindy: A pair of recent Southern historical mysteries raises the issue of racism. I read the first, Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element (2018) by Jeannie Mobley, on a recent destination wedding trip to New Orleans. I like coordinating book settings with my travel, and I was on deadline for Booklist’s #MysteryMonth, so this novel looked perfect for my trip, and it did not disappoint.

It’s 1923, and Bobby Lee robs the poor box at the Sisters of Charitable Mercy Orphanage before hopping a train to Chicago, where he plans to become a small-time criminal and seek his own fortune. He’d watched his mother, who cared for him on her own, live an honest life of poverty and hard labor, and after her death, he is grieving and ready to try a different path.

The train to Chicago has a cast of characters to rival any Agatha Christie novel. Bobby Lee soon finds himself a pawn between a New Orleans detective, a newly widowed young woman and her baby, and a few potential murderers, some of them Chicago mobsters. Information falls too easily into his hands, but he also does his own share of investigating, giving up sleep for sleuthing. Bobby Lee might think he wants to live a life of crime, but everyone he comes in contact with benefits from his kind and mostly law-abiding nature. Readers can follow the included train route map, each stop adding details and clues to the mystery. Jim Crow laws and segregated train cars, the Great Migration, and Prohibition are a few of the book’s historical focuses, in addition to period train travel. My library secretary just made this trip on Amtrak over spring break, but there were no caskets or mysteries to solve on her train. Looks like she should have been reading this story as the wheels clacked underneath her.

 

The Parker Inheritance by Varian JohnsonLynn: Our second selection, The Parker Inheritance (2018) by Varian Johnson, is set in the small town of Lambert, South Carolina. Along with her mother, Candice Miller is spending the summer in her dead grandmother’s house while their home is being renovated. Candice misses her grandmother, a woman full of sayings like “Just because you don’t see the path, doesn’t mean it’s not there” and “A mistake isn’t a failure. It’s just an opportunity to try again.”

It is a worrisome time for Candice. She’s still struggling with her parent’s divorce, and she worries about where she and her mother will live when their house sells. What about her friends and school? Why doesn’t her father invite her to stay at his apartment? Then her mother tells Candice a story about her grandmother being fired from a government job because of her belief in hidden treasure somewhere in the city.

Candice and her new friend Brandon discover a letter addressed to Candice from her grandmother containing a note that invites her to “Find the path. Solve the puzzle.” (The letter is the original mysterious challenge!) If they can follow the clues and solve the mystery, there is $40 million dollars waiting for them. Candice’s grandmother ruined her career trying to find the fortune. Can Candice and Brandon succeed where her grandmother failed?

Carve out some time, sit back, and settle into this densely layered and fascinating book. An intricate structure interweaves the current time with flashbacks to 1957, when segregation was the law of the land in the south. The reader is in the process as these book-loving children take on the challenge. Research is the key, and one of the delights of this book is walking step-by-step with Candice and Brandon as they put their skills and logic to work. Johnson’s craftsmanship brings both time periods and all the people to life, giving readers an eye-witness experience with the injustice, fear and life-long impact of segregation and discrimination. Outstanding!

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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