The Scribe
Matthew Guinn
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The Scribe
Matthew Guinn
W.W. Norton
304 pages
September 2015
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The Scribe is rife with contrasts. Post-Civil War Atlanta is awash in change, Southern gentility and deep-seated intransigence confronted by the mechanics of progress. Faces black and white surge through the streets, the lingering brutality of war coexisting with the determined energy of rebuilding a proud city brought to its knees in defeat. Guinn’s approach is both pragmatic and lyrical, his prose salted with philosophy in an articulate tale of murder that is unsparing in detail. A killer is on a murderous rampage in Atlanta, leaving scenes of unspeakable horrorin his wake, the public as yet unaware. Meanwhile, the city is vigorously advertising the 1881 Cotton International Exposition; the recent crimes pose a threat to the venture. Fortunes have been waged on the success of the Expo: “The consensus seemed to be that industry and speed would replace the city’s grief, if she moved fast enough.”

Former Atlanta detective Thomas Canby is recalled from exile to catch the killer. The detective disgraced and rejected by the city he served returns only at the impassioned request of Sheriff Vernon Thompson. Tasked as a “Special Investigator,” Canby begins his investigation conscious of the ill-will still harbored by the city’s most influential citizens, particularly the owner of the newspaper The Atlanta Constitution, Henry Grady. Grady made it a personal mission to ruin Canby’s reputation, still holding that opinion when Canby returns. Among the changes wrought by the war is the surprising hire of a new detective: Cyrus Underwood, a black man who will be assisting Thomas with the case.

Though the grisly murders have been kept from the public, it is only a matter of time before word spreads. The slayings have thus far been directed at successful black entrepreneurs, each victim with a letter carved on his forehead. The murders are accelerating. Canby and Underwood are called to a blood-soaked room in a bordello to view the scene of the latest victim, a female. Not trusting Underwood’s motives, Canby doesn’t discount the detective as a suspect, unaccustomed to working with a black man, even though Canby has served in the Union army, believing himself open-minded.

After yet another bloody slaughter, a man is arrested, a pawn to satisfy the terrified public’s demands for justice. This man is not guilty of the murder of a factory girl, as Canby well knows, but the powerful men of Atlanta require a swift solution to a dilemma with unacceptable financial consequences unless resolved. Canby is forced to step aside once more in disgrace: “He knew by any name it was power. And that its undercurrents were ruthless.” Sated for a time, the killer among them assumes a different tactic, placing Canby in his sights. It is a close brush with death; while recovering, Thomas tries to comprehend this madman’s motives, a fanatic whose evil seed may spawn acolytes. A further demonstration of murder and mayhem--this time directed directly at Thomas--suggests the detectives’ work is not yet finished.

Though drenched in blood, haunting images of the most barbaric murders, The Scribe is an intensely literary novel. Guinn builds his story on the ruined bones of post-war South and the intellectual philosophies of learned men discussing race and intelligence, logical persuasion encouraging societal change. Canby’s own father owned many of the works proselytizing one perspective or another, willing to consider or reject any argument. Often apologists cite Biblical quotations in support of their theories, a mix that is toxic and inflammatory in the mind of a madman, Canby and Underwood discovering just how dangerous their quest has become. The stakes are higher, more deeply steeped in horror, evil unleashed upon yet another unsuspecting city. More inclined to engage in philosophical debate with Underwood--who has proven an astute student on the nature of evil--Canby finds the detective’s arguments more persuasive since his own brush with death. This change of perspective is brutal and hard-won: “And thus the wise man dreams in the deep of night, his face illuminated by the glints of the abyss.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2015

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