"The Scribe: A Novel" By: Matthew Guinn
Author: Matthew Guinn
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.
Price: $25.95 (Hardcover)
Matthew Guinn’s first novel, “The Resurrectionist,” published in 2013, told the story of a cache of bones found in the basement of a medical school in Columbia, South Carolina. They were human bones, buried for decades, but whose? Guinn published the novel as literary fiction with a fresh subject, and it was a great success. Surprisingly, “The Resurrectionist” was nominated for an Edgar, a mystery writers award.
This time out there is no mistake. “The Scribe” is an action thriller, an adventure-murder mystery and one of the most tense and exciting novels I have read in ages.
The scene is Atlanta, 1881. The city has rebuilt itself, mostly, since Sherman’s army passed through. Boosterism, progress, the New South ethos, is in full swing, promoted daily in the paper by head cheerleader Henry Grady.
The jewel in Atlanta’s crown is the International Cotton Exposition, a forerunner of events like the Chicago World’s Fair, which will showcase “the birth of the new South,” with “exhibitors from New England to the Middle West and from six foreign countries.”
To illustrate how Georgia has rejoined the United States of America, General Sherman himself will visit. Simultaneously demonstrating the efficiency of the new machines and the reconciliation of the South with the United States, a suit will be made for him in a single day. Cotton picked in the morning will be made into a suit for Sherman to wear to the evening banquet.
It is a giant celebration, but everything is at stake. The powers that run Atlanta are deeply invested in the Exposition, emotionally and more importantly financially. Shares in the Exposition have been sold. It is crucial that attendance be huge.
Unfortunately, a serial killer is on the loose, torturing, murdering and mutilating, in grotesque, unspeakable fashion—and I mean unspeakable—the most prosperous African-American businessmen in the city.
It seems not everyone is pleased with the racial progress being made.
Resentful, some want a return to the days of absolute white supremacy.
Detective Thomas Canby is called in to find the killer, but the murders continue. Among the least awful horrors inflicted on the victims, a letter of the alphabet is carved into each forehead. But what is the word being spelled?
One can hope it is a short word.
As Canby and his sidekick Cyrus Underwood, Atlanta’s first black policeman, pursue the clues, the action moves from luxury hotels to black neighborhoods to Grant Park to the railroad roundhouse, and we get a tour of the city of 1881. Canby and the reader also learn what depths of racism and anti-Semitism flourish just beneath the surface. As busy as the city may be, there is still time for hate.
We come to know the members of the “Ring,” Atlanta’s movers and shakers, and discover what an obsessively greedy and hypocritical bunch these Chamber of Commerce “businessman” types are. In their panic they demand: arrest someone. Anyone. The crimes must be solved quickly or attendance will suffer and they will lose money!
As a conventional “follow- the- clues-whodunnit,” “The Scribe” is superb. Then the novel shifts to a still higher gear. The killer—brilliant, cunning, seemingly clairvoyant—may be more than devilish. He may actually BE the devil. Even when wounded grievously he will not die. Even in prison, he has unnatural control over his agents/minions on the outside.
Detective Cyrus Underwood, a Christian believer and knowledgeable Bible reader, believes it may be Satan Himself. Canby, a rationalist, will have none of it. There must be an explanation. It is unacceptable to Canby that Satan is literally on the loose in Atlanta. The last third of the novel is an exciting read, scary in fact in the way “The Exorcist” was scary, with genuinely surprising twists, and as a veteran reader of many a thriller I am not easily frightened or surprised.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark” and the editor of “A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.”