Book review: A Calamity of Souls by David Baldacci

Sunday, March 24, 2024 Permalink

It’s a terrible thing to admit but I’ve little interest in history (or real life in general – hence my hatred of non-fiction), so avoid books set… anytime before the 1960s basically. A Calamity of Souls by David Baldacci is however set in the late 1960s. Around the time I was born in fact. Thankfully I enjoyed the ‘mystery’ on offer (not to mention the unfolding plot) because as a non-American I know very little of the time and events referenced here. It didn’t impinge of my enjoyment of the book, but I’m fairly sure I skimmed bits about politics and legislation that would be known by, or of interest to, Americans.*

Book review: A Calamity of Souls by David BaldacciA Calamity of Souls
by David Baldacci
Published by Macmillan
on 01/04/2024
Source: PanMacmillan
Genres: Crime Fiction, Police Procedural
ISBN: 1035035588
Pages: 400

Jack Lee is a white lawyer from Freeman County, Virginia, who has never done anything to push back against racism, until he decides to represent Jerome Washington, a Black man charged with brutally killing an elderly and wealthy white couple.

Doubting his decision, Lee fears that his legal skills may not be enough to prevail in a case where the odds are already stacked against both him and his client. And he quickly finds himself out of his depth when he realizes that what is at stake is far greater than the outcome of a murder trial.  

Desiree DuBose is a Black lawyer from Chicago who has devoted her life to furthering the causes of justice and equality for everyone. She comes to Freeman County and enters a fractious and unwieldy partnership with Lee in a legal battle against the best prosecutor in the Commonwealth. Yet DuBose is also aware that powerful outside forces are at work to blunt the victories achieved by the Civil Rights era.   

Lee and DuBose could not be more dissimilar. On their own, neither one can stop the prosecution’s deliberate march towards a guilty verdict and the electric chair. But together, the pair fight for what once seemed impossible: a chance for a fair trial and true justice.

Baldacci gives us several narrators. There’s Jack Lee, the lawyer who’s taken on a case out of conscience. His parents, including his father who seems fair-minded and butts heads with Jack’s mother, who apparently once was more tolerant but here is a proponent of segregation and reeks of racism. And then there’s Desiree, who’s a woman on a mission. Well, a woman with a cause and it’s interesting that Jack needs to remind her on a few occasions that a man’s life is at stake. Though there’s a bigger picture and a race war still being fought, he keeps her focussed on the battle ahead.

It takes a while to get to the investigation here, which is usually of most interest to me – whether I’m reading police or legal procedurals or crime fiction with amateur sleuths. The ‘who’ and ‘why’ is what brings me to this genre.

But this is also about the characters, and of course the culture and backdrop in which this unfolds plays a huge role. It’s shocking 50 years later to read some of the dialogue and diabolical that some of that shit even happened. Someone spitting in a black woman’s wine for example. Emptying a pool after a black family’s swum in it. I mean, WTF?! And then there’s the language. I should mention Baldacci adds a note in advance to apologise for the terminology – explaining it’s reflective of the time and there so there’s a level of authenticity, but he’s restricted it as much as possible. He also notes it took him 10 years and several attempts to write.

It’s that same authenticity that makes Baldacci’s words and phrasing sing. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was reading this with an accent attached, giving the prose musicality:

The debilitating humidity, wicked off the nearby McHenry River, spread everywhere, like mustard gas weaving through the war trenches. The sweat dripped off the deputies’ faces, darkened their starched shirts, and, like gnats flitting around nostrils and eyes, added to their rage. p 2

For much of this it seems obvious to readers that Jerome has been railroaded and we were privy to the beating he got on arrest that the bastard cops said was him ‘resisting’. And yes I realise I sound kinda angry there cos it is hard to read some of this without feeling like that.

Baldacci is measured though and there’s debate we’re still hearing today. Many of us claim ‘we’ didn’t do those things, wondering why we should be sorry or offer reparation. Indeed, in the the book it’s ‘but we didn’t own slaves….’

Though this doesn’t offer up a ‘happily ever after’ ending it ends in a way that’s probably reflective of the way fate played out. It also ends in way that suggests this may become a new series for Baldacci. It’s an important read. It’s ire-inducing and frustrating AF in parts but worth it nonetheless.

A Calamity of Souls by David Baldacci will be published in Australia in late March by PanMacmillan.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 

* And in all honesty, if I was going to educate myself I really need to start with my own country’s history. Sadly I was educated in a period when all First Nations’ history was ignored and generally denied. Any recognition of past actions of colonialists who ‘settled’ (by way of force, unfortunately) came long after my schooling. (And truth telling treaties and initiatives are still only being established now.)


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