Wednesday, 20 August 2008


Master Of The Delta
Thomas H Cook
Quercus £16.99 ISBN 9781847242112

There is a temptation to divide Thomas Cook’s novels into ‘northerns’ and ‘southerns‘, with those set in what seem to be small New England towns featuring more direct action, more contemporary dilemmas, and a more straight-forward writing styles. The ones set in the south tend to move more slowly, often digging deeper into the past, and seem imbued with a kind of Faulknerian feeling, where it always a bright July morning just before Pickett's Charge is about to begin.

MASTER OF THE DELTA is very much in the southern category. Set in 1954, before the violent upheavals of the civil rights movement, the story is told by Jack March, a teacher in a Mississippi high school. But in a society still organised along the racial and class divides of the ante-bellum South, he comes from one of the town’s first families, and teaching is for him a ‘vocation’ not an ‘occupation’. Still, he tries to involve his students, although sometimes in the manner of a scientist looking for movement from bacteria in a petrie dish. He assigns his class an essay on evil people, and one withdrawn student, Eddie Miller, decides to write about his father, ‘The Coed Killer’, who murdered and dismembered a girl when Eddie was just five years old.

Eddie blossoms under the assignment, but his investigation begins to trouble many people, including the police chief, the school principal, and some of his fellow students. It also attracts the attention of Jack’s father, who once taught Eddie’s father himself, but now lives in quiet seclusion, working on his ‘Book Of Days’, which Jack assumes is a diary, and which will never be finished. Meanwhile, Jack has fallen in love with another teacher, a girl from ‘across the tracks’, and Eddie appears to be forming a relationship with the girlfriend of the school’s star jock and bully.

The reader knows, because Jack is telling the story long after the events took place, that there is tragedy behind it. And the suspense comes from the parallel stories about to be revealed: Eddie’s look at the truth about the Coed killing, and Jack’s telling of the effects Eddie’s quest produced. But the story is also about distances: of fathers from their sons, of intellectual snobbery from the cause and effect of real life, of the past from the present. These are barriers which are always in flux, and sometimes not really there at all; as for Faulkner, for Cook the past is always with us.

Perhaps because I’m a Yankee, my favourite Cook novels have been ‘northerns‘ (THE CHATHAM SCHOOL AFFAIR, PLACES IN THE DARK, RED LEAVES), but in this atmospheric ‘southern’ Cook shows how he can wring suspense from the most simple aspects of the quotidian; it’s not the crimes themselves, but way life in Mississippi goes on, the way the people react, absorb, ignore, and live with those crimes that makes MASTER OF THE DELTA so powerful.

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