Sunday, July 5, 2009

Chiefs by Stuart Woods

The one calling card of civilization is murder. For as long as human beings have lived in communal groups, villages, towns, cities, urban areas, they have killed each other for varying reasons, and the nature of those crimes tells us much about the culture and lives of those involved.

For the past 25 years, Stuart Woods has made a very good living pumping out entertaining murder mysteries, but his career began with "Chiefs," a novel revolving around a series of unsolved murders spanning forty years in a small town in Georgia. I am not a regular reader of Woods' work, and I became familiar with "Chiefs" first as a three-part miniseries that aired in the eighties starring Charlton Heston, Wayne Rogers, Brad Davis and Billy Dee Williams, among others.

In the early 20s, the small milltown of Delano sprouts up southwest of Atlanta and anoints Will Henry Lee, a farmer wiped out by the boil wievel, as its first police chief. Lee is honest, dependable, a fatherly figure who gradually grows into the job of small-town lawman. But he is haunted when the nude, tortured body of a teenage boy turns up at the bottom of a ravine. Over time, Lee begins to believe that young runaways are disappearing somewhere in his town, murdered by someone who sits in the town's church pews and frequents its shops.

The story later leaps forward into the 40s, following Lee's son Billy, an up and coming politician, and Sonny Butts, the returning war hero who becomes police chief. Sonny is a classic Southern thug cop, a closeted Klansman who extorts money and beats confessions out of innocent people. But he latches onto the missing boys as a way of saving his job. The book ends with Tucker Watts, the town's first black chief, who looks for a solution to the case even as he battles the state's racist law enforcement apparatus.

Briefly stated, this is not Faulkner or O'Connor. "Chiefs" is a page-turner, and it is unabashed in its status as an entertaining story, not social comment. The characters have some complexity, just enough to keep the reader hooked. No one is overly repugnant except the villains, the scoundrels are kept interesting, the heroes are suitably and predictably heroic. But Woods isn't just interested in a nice beach read here. He manages to work in an engaging story of the growth of a small Southern town and the inexorable pull of history. Deep into the book, the town's ancient banker, Hugh Holmes, observes:

"I never thought I'd be afraid of change - not change I could control. That's what bothers me. This thing has begun to control us, instead of we it. It's the first time in my life I've had the feeling of having to run to keep up."

C. Vann Woodward and W.J. Cash, among others, have observed that the idea of the South as an unchanging monolith, a preserve of tradition and order, is a lie. The traditions that Southerners cling to are often less than a generation old, or merely shadows of former traditions that are themselves built on previous ones. Holmes represents the Southerner who appeared at the turn of the last century, bent on rebuilding the South's material wealth and influence. Those dreams, eventually, helped drag the South into modern America just as much as Martin Luther King Jr. In the end, the lust for money killed segregation just as much as the courts, as when Delano hires Tucker Watts in hopes of attracting Northern industry. It was the genius of King, though, to realize that it would take something beyond law and order or money to change the soul of a nation.

But order is much of what "Chiefs" is about. The town's mysterious murderer is actually revealed early in the book, but it is the path to ending his spree that makes the journey interesting. The killer himself seeks a kind of order, imposing it on victims who have no idea what he seeks or what kind of impulses he longs to satisfy. The police chiefs who people the story seek order by their own definitions, honest and dishonest. Murder, the ultimate crime, comes to define their lives and give its own order.

In the end, Holmes is heart broken at the prospect that the town he has nurtured for half a century will become "a synonym for perversion and death," but similar realizations happen to many of the characters in "Chiefs." It is this touch, frustrated hopes and ambitions, which gives the novel a heft it might not otherwise carry. Its people are sometimes denied the ends they wish, and instead have to find meaning in what is left. The world it sketches out may be an idealized fiction, but it is not that far from the worlds we create and cling to in order to survive in the real world.

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