“Between Black and White,” by Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey

Robert Bailey

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Following the success of his powerful debut legal thriller, The Professor (Thomas & Mercer 2015), Bailey offers a second, stunning story in the series. In his novel Between Black and White (Thomas & Mercer March 2016), Bailey establishes beyond doubt that he is an author to be read and reckoned with.

Between Black and White is closely tied to Bailey’s first book and involves several of the same characters. In The Professor, readers were introduced to aging former law professor Tom McMurtrie, who returns to the courtroom after being forced out of his teaching position at The University of Alabama School of Law. Tom teams up with Rick Drake, an impetuous young attorney and his one-time student. Together, in The Professor, Tom and Rick pursue a tense and dangerous wrongful death lawsuit.

While Tom and Rick dominate The Professor, another lawyer—Bocephus Haynes, or Bo—steps into that story at critical times to boost and support Tom. Bo is a bigger than life black University of Alabama football star who blew out his knee and, instead of retreating into depression over the loss of a pro football career, goes to law school. Tom is one of his professors, and the two develop a close friendship.

As much as The Professor was Tom and Rick’s story, Between Black and White is Bo’s story. In the prologue, we meet Bo as a five-year-old who watches members of the Ku Klux Klan lynch his beloved father. From the opening pages of Chapter One—which finds a disheartened, angry Bo getting drunk on the anniversary of his father’s brutal lynching—to the shocking, violent conclusion, Bo leaps off the pages with boldness and spirit. But like all well-crafted fictional heroes, he is flawed, and his failings land him in a courtroom as the sole defendant in a capital murder case.

His near fatal flaw: hunger for revenge. Obsessed with punishing the man who lynched his father, Bo shapes his professional life around that goal. After graduating with honors from The University of Alabama School of Law, Bo turns down offers at prestigious law firms. He returns to his home town, Pulaski, Tennessee, to a solo law practice as the city’s only black attorney—and to pursue the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. Too many people in the city of Pulaski know Bo is driven by his fixation to punish the man he blames for his father’s lynching. His wife has even left him because his drive to avenge his father’s murder has endangered their two children.

Since Bo was five years-old, he has blamed Andrew Davis Walton, a powerful businessman in Pulaski, for his father’s death. Once the Imperial Wizard of the Tennessee Knights of the KKK, Walton shook off the robes of the Klan and made millions in the stock market. Known as the “the Warren Buffett of the South,” he tried to make amends for his Klan actions.

Yet people have a long memory when it comes to the Klan—and no one more than Bo. Though Walton was hooded the night five-year-old Bo witnessed the lynching, Bo recognized Walton’s voice. But no one in law enforcement was ever willing—then or later—to prosecute Walton on the testimony of a child claiming to identify a voice.

On the 45th anniversary of his father’s lynching, Bo gets drunks in a local bar. Walton and Maggie, Walton’s aging, beautiful wife and one of the local landed aristocracy, seemingly accidentally run into Bo in the bar. Face to face with Walton, Bo threatens him in front of witnesses by quoting the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye.”

After the bartender breaks up the confrontation, Walton steps outside. But before Bo leaves the bar, Maggie returns to tell him that Walton is dying. She asks that Bo leave her terminally ill husband alone. Bo staggers out, lamenting to himself that Andy Walton was going to die before he could bring him to justice.

That night, someone shoots Walton and stages a mock lynching at the site where Bo’s father was lynched four and a half decades before.

Physical evidence points directly at Bo. Everyone in the legal community knows he had the motive and opportunity. Even before Bo recovers from his hangover, he is in jail. The prosecutor, a fierce woman attorney who has butted heads with Bo in court before, decides to seek the death penalty.

Pulaski was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and many residents and officials in the city strive to live that down. So when the murder, with its roots in the old KKK lynching, puts Pulaski and its Klan heritage back in the spotlight of national media, city officials attempt to pressure Bo to plead guilty and avoid the further media circus of a trial.

Bo refuses. He is innocent of murdering Walton—or so he claims, though no one in law enforcement believes him. He calls on his former law professor and close friend, Tom, to defend him. Reluctantly, Tom agrees and retains local attorney Raymond “Ray Ray” Pickalew, another former U of A football player. Rick, who is now Tom’s law partner, is dragged into the case as well.

Though Tom and Rick sense a setup, they struggle against multiple roadblocks—and the overwhelming physical evidence of Bo’s guilt—to determine who had a motive to kill Andy Walton and frame Bo. During their quest, Tom is assaulted and sidelined by his injuries; Ray Ray is a drunk with an attitude, and young. Overwhelmed Rick is left to unravel the seemingly unrelated pieces of a complex, emotional puzzle. Villains from The Professor return to taunt and threaten Tom and Rick, adding further intricacy to the plot.

Thus, Bailey sets up the classic formula of a legal thriller. Mind you, formula is not used as a derogatory term here. Shakespeare’s sonnets were formula and critics do not dismiss them in disparaging terms. As used here, formula simply refers to the structure and elements that define a genre or a literary style. In a legal thriller where the focus is on a criminal defendant on trial for his or her life, readers expect the odds to be stacked against the defendant. They expect the defense attorneys to be complicated, troubled, overwhelmed and conflicted. And, owing perhaps to the Perry Mason standard, readers expect a surprise witness and revelation near the close of the trial which allows the defense attorneys to prevail and the defendant to be found not guilty.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to this basic formula. Lincoln Lawyer and A Time to Kill come to mind. Both of those legal thrillers had guilty defendants, yet with vastly differing twists at the end.

Given the formulaic elements at play in the genre, a successful legal thriller author has to avoid creating a stale, mechanical plot that reads like a written version of a paint-by-number canvas. Yet the author has to keep the plot within the confines of the genre or publishers will scratch their heads and throw the manuscript on the reject pile.

In other words, authors working within a prescribed genre face a kind of delicate yet vicious circle. On the one hand, they must write within the parameters of their chosen genre. But, on the other hand, they have to do something new, exciting and fresh. It’s kind of like saying: Color within the lines. But don’t color within the lines.

Within this catch-22, the author has to give the reader something more—and something different. This Bailey does, and does with a bang.

Yet, having said that much, to say much more about the surprising, original twists of Between Black and White risks spoiling the plot. Thus, this reviewer will only observe that per the Perry Mason/John Grisham model, an unexpected witness with a startling revelation does pop up at the end of the trial. But just when the reader settles back to relax and believe that justice has been achieved, something complicated, violent and utterly surprising happens.

It isn’t just that Bailey knows how to surprise us, but he also writes well. Very well. Make no mistake on that point. His sentences are clear, clean, distinctive, and when they need to hit with a punch, they do. His pacing is excellent—an edge-of-the-seat, can’t-put-it-down momentum fuels the storyline from the prologue to the climatic ending. His characters are well-drawn, his sense of place and world-building excellent. The plot is intricate, but believable. There is redemption for some characters, resolution for others—and those that deserve neither are left to flounder in their own hell. Justice is achieved, albeit in a confused, violent way.

In short, Bailey wrestles what in less talented hands could have been a formulaic story into something wholly fresh, engaging, and ultimately rich and satisfying. This is a book you want to own and read.

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  1. The review has me eager to read the book. Great job, Claire!

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