The grave on the football field is shallow, and easy to spot from a distance. It would have been found sooner, had most of the residents in the black half of Birmingham not been downtown, marching, singing, and being arrested alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. Police detective Ben Wellman is among them when he gets the call about the fresh grave.
Under the loosely packed dirt, he finds a young black girl, her innocence taken and her life along with it. His sergeant orders Wellman to investigate, but instructs him not to try too hard. In the summer of 1963, Birmingham is tense enough without a manhunt for the killers of a black child. Wellman digs for the truth in spite of skepticism from the black community and scorn from his fellow officers. What he finds is a secret that men from both sides of town would prefer stayed buried.
©1989 Thomas H. Cook (P)2012 HighBridge Company
"Cook doesn't use the civil rights movement merely as a conveniently atmospheric backdrop; he weaves it through the plot in sharp, unexpected ways." (Publishers Weekly)
"[Cook] reaffirms his ability to create realistic characterization and vivid narrative, then wrap it all up in a tightly plotted, cleverly clued mystery." (Library Journal)
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"Lyrically Compelling. Clever, Moody, Masterful!"
“It is ideas, not best interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.” - John Maynard Keynes wrote that.
It’s what fuels Streets Afire and Birmingham police sergeant Ben Wellman through the sticky heat and hatred of Bull Connor’s 1963 summer. Oddly, my iPod spontaneously and mystically chose to play George Winston’s lyrically sweet Daughter’s and Sons as Ray Chase quietly read this complex novel’s closing feeling. It’s not skipped to a song before at a book’s end.
Did the device sense my feelings? This novel, masquerading as a clever magnetic mystery/murder/procedural tale is in fact a compelling masterpiece of mood. It murmurs a group memory… like a fading snapshot… of that grainy-TV- screen summer Americans share of a time, a year, a summer, and a moment when we awoke to an idea, not best interest, which was dangerous… for good.
"A BRILLIANT book. I can't praise it enough."
I had never read anything by Thomas Cook before. He has won awards in the mystery/thriller genre, and it's easy to see why. Also, I had never heard of Ray Chase. If it is possible to be better than brilliant (in caps!), then Mr. Chase is that. The book is set in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. Racial tensions had not been this high since the Civil War. The rape and murder of a twelve-year-old black girl sets up the plot. Sgt. Ben Wellman of the BPD is assigned to the case, and he brings to it a ferocious determination. Mr. Chase's range and variety of voices, accents and nuance is absolutely astonishing. You can almost believe that there are about a dozen actors in this play. This is the time when Dr. King was building his power base, and white Southerners (not all of them, to be sure) were scared and outraged down to their very bootlaces. This was the moment when the fire department turned powerful hoses on completely peaceful marchers. It almost seems like this all happened in another country. In five years both Dr. King and Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.
Ben feels intense heat from all directions, even (and particularly dangerously) from within his own police department. Many people from many segments of the community do not want Ben to solve the murder of Doreen Bollinger. Ben tries to get to know the girl's aunt Esther, but even such an apparently innocent contact is fraught with peril and suspicion from both whites and blacks. Ben feels pressured from all sides, and he is like a bug under a microscope, every move examined to the nth degree by everyone in town, or so he feels. The plot drives us so powerfully that I wouldn't recommend reading this just before you go to sleep, seriously. I hardly ever say that. In this case, the book can keep you reading well into the wee hours, and it can mess up your day at work. At the same time, I never wanted it to end. On a personal note, I was in Nashville during this time, at Vanderbilt. The most bizarre sight I have ever witnessed was the day after Dr. King's murder, when US Army tanks (!) rolled down West End Avenue, the long edge of the campus. Vanderbilt at the time was a hotbed of complacency, and it may still be. Black students numbered in the few dozens. What did they expect, an explosive race riot?
Enough about me. Get this book right now. Anyone who truly loves this genre, and has some feelings about racial conflicts in this country, will be so engrossed in the book that he or she might miss a few meals.
"Very Special Book"
I grew up in the south in the 60s and in my opinion this book captures the feel of this time in our country's history with straight forward grit and grace. The characters come alive under Mr. Cook's pen. The story is compelling throughout. The main character Ben is a complex and caring man who is trying to find out the circumstances surrounding the death of a young black girl found in the neighborhood of Bearmatch. This book reflects the tensions back then and accurately illustrates the horrors so many people in the African American community suffered at the hands of some very mean and sadistic police officers.
The only small complaint I have is that I found the narration to be a bit confusing at times. I was too often trying to figure out who was speaking; this narrator although very good in many ways, did not differentiate the characters very well.
Overall an excellent and important read/listen!
"How soon we forget."
While built on the bones of a crime novel--and a fine one, Thomas Cook's masterful work is much, much more. He captures the ethos of the nastiest crevices of racism in the deep South during the height of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the heroism of those who stood up against it.
As I listened to this wonderfully narrated piece (thank you, Ray Chase), the surreal horror of the confrontations between Freedom Marchers and police in the 60's all came crashing back to me. (Note: I have lived in the South pretty much my whole life.) The rabid, self-righteous racism and casual brutality depicted in such shocking detail did exist and is yet to be totally eradicated (please support the efforts of the SPLC). Do not think for a minute that Cook exaggerates, although he takes pains to show us, too, that evil is not race specific.
On the other hand, nobility, honor, and courage are not race-specific, either, and Cook shows us that, as well. The uneasy steps toward trust always require courage, and a few are taken as the story unfolds. Sometimes those steps are simply to move out of the way, to not impede the progress of a bolder person, set on doing the right thing.
This crime novel is as raw and gripping as any I have read. The characters are finely drawn, the prose is faultless, the plotting is seamless, and the ethos is all too real. It's a stretch to use the word "enjoy" in the context of this work, but you will be riveted by the story, the setting, the characters, and the mystery. What sets Streets of Fire head and shoulders above other books in its genre is that, ultimately, you will also be moved.
"Phew! I'm Exhausted"
Such a great story, I did could not stop listening to it.
A tense-filled mystery wrapped in an intense snapshot of American history.
Thomas Cook wrote a winner. Ray Chase did a good job with the narration, but a couple of the voices were over the top. Just don't plan to listen to it at work or with earbuds. You need to play it into a large open room.
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