A DEATH IN LIVE OAK
By James Grippando
Publisher: HarperCollins (February, 2018)
A Jack Swyteck novel (Book #15)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
In 1944, in the heyday of Jim Crow laws, James Howard was hogtied and thrown into the Suwannee River for the crime of giving a white girl a Christmas card. No one was ever charged with the crime. Decades later, Jamal Cousin, the president of the Black fraternity at the University of Florida, is found on the banks of the same river, hogtied, his neck in a noose, just like James Howard.
Mark Towson, president of the all-white Theta Pi Omega fraternity at the university, becomes the prime suspect when threatening texts to Jamal are found on his phone. Against the advice of his friends and colleagues and his father Harry, a former governor of Florida, Jack Swyteck takes Mark’s case. Mark’s father Tucker was on the elder Swyteck’s staff and is a close family friend. Mark swears he did not send the texts, that someone at a party where he left his phone unattended must have done it to frame him. Jack, a top defense attorney, is inclined to believe him, but the State Attorney, Oliver Boalt, who is up for re-election, is pulling out all the stops to convict the entitled frat boy.
Racial tension grows as the members of the two fraternities continue to spar. People in the city are also taking sides, and things are getting ugly. Matters get worse when Percy Donavan, a member of Jamal’s fraternity, is abducted and beaten up. His attorney, Leroy Highsmith, is a flamboyant loudmouth who fans the flames with wild accusations against the members of Theta Pi Omega. Jack and his family are threatened because of his unpopular client, but he will not back down.
In the midst of the turmoil, Jack’s wife Andi, an FBI agent, is on a top secret assignment in Miami. She’s infiltrated an especially brutal white supremacist group in Miami. He’s worried about her safety, but she’s a true professional and has always been able to hold her own in a fight. Still, this time she’s pregnant, and her communications with him and the agency have suddenly stopped.
Grippando has created a suspenseful and haunting study of racism, both during Jim Crow days and the present. Some things have changed for the better, but far too much has not. A DEATH IN LIVE OAK is an excellent look at politics, culture, racism, injustice, and murder in the south. He has also written a gripping, tightly plotted, murder mystery. Characters are unique and fully rounded; the setting comes alive, pulling the reader right into the lush flora of the city and the dank, dangerous swamplands. Highly recommended.
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