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Justice goes awry in murders 40 years apart

“Until Proven: A Mystery in 2 Parts,” by Nora Gaskin. Lystra Books and Literary Services, Chapel Hill. 272 pp. $11.95.

SALISBURY — Race and class certainly do matter — especially in the eyes of the law. Justice is not blind and impartial. It is often cruel and misguided.
Nora Gaskin shows this in her novel, “Until Proven: A Mystery in 2 Parts,” which takes place in 1963 and 2003. In a rather dismaying way, she shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Murderers go free; innocent men pay a heavy price. Your skin color separates you.
The 1963 murder takes place in a small Southern town that houses Mangum University, certainly a nod to Gaskin’s Chapel Hill. A very wealthy, well-respected family is rocked by a death, then outraged when evidence points to one of their own.
Because it is 1963, times are tense. Kennedy has been assassinated. Martin Luther King Jr. is beginning his work for civil rights. Conscientious people are joining quiet protests — the now familiar civil disobedience — to work for change. The people who suffer are the ones seeking equality. So it should come as no surprise when the punishment for a simple protest is three years on a work farm.
It should come as no surprise, either, that when a young black man tells police what he heard in relation to the murder, he will pay the consequences. It could be the wealthy white man, Laurence Vance, has a motive. What does come as a surprise is the venomous reaction from Laurence’s sister, Rhetta Phillips, who makes her lawyer husband Colin swear he will defend her brother and pin the murder on the innocent young black man who heard too much.
Jabel Clark is an honest, hard working, smart young man who should have a happy and productive future. But it’s that honesty that forces him to disappear and the murder case to go unsolved.
In 1963, any move to support equality — even fair treatment — is suspect, and often brings retribution. Jabel lives with his grandmother, and his actions rain terror down on her head, culminating with a cross burning that nearly sets the house on fire. It’s maddening the way Jabel and his family are victimized, when all they are is being honest. But it is, sadly, the way of the land. Even sadder, as the second murder occurs, it looks like things haven’t changed much.
Also sad is how, 40 years later, old grudges are still fresh — forgiveness is forsaken.
Rhetta Phillips’ daughter, Wren, has inherited her mother’s ferocity about family. She still feels the need to punish the person who implicated her uncle, still blames Jabel for the unhappiness that follows the murder.
Gaskin presents a situation of Capulets and Montagues when a bright young woman from Jabel’s family and Wren’s bright young son meet and fall in love. The foreshadowing is obvious — someone else will have to die.
The characters, starting with the wealthy, old money Vances and Colin Phillips, who marries into the family, are more sketches than flesh and blood. Here’s the rich, spoiled Rhetta insisting on getting her way. Here’s brave Colin willing to bend the law to keep the peace. Here’s noble Jabel and his grandmother, Marie, who raised the Vance children, ready to be victimized.
Two generations later, Jabel’s family is still exceptionally bright and beyond reproach, except that he has had to change his name and move away to avoid the past. Now he’s a professor and back in town to teach at Mangum. Race still plays a big part, as the Vance family descendants struggle to accept Jabel’s presence, and his daughter’s relationship with grandson Sean.
It seems the family is cursed, as tragedy strikes again. The upstanding ruling class is suspect. But so are members of Jabel’s family, and, again, the effort in court is to pin the murder on someone other than the man charged.
Although the dialogue is sometimes stilted and Gaskin uses far too many stage directions when people move about, the book will hold your interest. The second part is more compelling than the first, and the problem with the first part is that it lacks depth. The civil rights movement is secondary and quickly forgotten. Jabel’s family must accept the injustices done to them without protest. At least Colin Phillips has a chance to do the right thing during the second murder. But the rich, white characters are more like photos from an old yearbook than people you might know.

Nora Gaskin, author of “Until Proven,” will be at Literary Bookpost, 110 S. Main St., Friday, July 19, to sign books from 6-8 p.m.

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