‘Trial’: Richard North Patterson at his best


Vineyarders browsing through Edgartown Books or the Bunch of Grapes this summer should beware of towering stacks of “Trial” (Post Hill Press), the 23rd novel by seasonal West Tisbury resident Richard North Patterson, which was published on June 13. Starting innocently enough with a college romance, albeit an interracial one, the tension in “Trial” builds steadily, a delight for readers who aren’t scared off by some raw truths about race relations in America today.

Thrown together months before they graduated from Harvard 20 years ago, Allie Hill and Chase Brevard couldn’t have come from more disparate backgrounds. He is from a life of privilege, and an almost preordained future: Of course he’d go on to law school, or business school, and devote his life to maintaining the establishment’s status quo. Her destination was more specific: She’d return to rural Georgia — a world so distant from his that it defied comparison — and devote her life to enfranchising poor Black Georgians. Problem was, they fell in love. Until she cut the affair short, inexplicably, when she left Cambridge only days before graduation. There was no communication between them thereafter.

Brevard eventually became a U.S. congressman, with a limitless political upside, while Hill founded Blue Georgia, a voter registration effort of underprivileged (read Black) Georgians that had attracted national attention. Neither married.

Watching MSNBC as he prepares breakfast one morning in his Georgetown home, Brevard is shaken by a bulletin announcing the arrest of Malcolm Hill, the 18-year-old son of the well-known Georgian activist Allie Hill. A quick calculation takes his breath away: Could this be his son? Would this explain Allie’s abrupt departure from Cambridge 19 years earlier? Malcolm is being held “pending investigation of the shooting death of a sheriff’s deputy in rural Georgia.” In the town of Freedom, Ga., no less.

Brevard decides immediately to head for Cade County, where Allie lives and works, and where Malcolm is incarcerated. For starters, he has to find out from Allie if Malcolm is indeed his son. If so, he wants to meet Malcolm and do everything in his power to support him. Brevard’s effort to rebuild a relationship with Allie, and build one from scratch with Malcolm, is particularly poignant.

Returning to Washington only for the most essential business on Capitol Hill, Brevard finds himself enmeshed in the legal effort to defend Malcolm against the capital murder charge. From the moment the gun discharged the bullet that blew away half the deputy’s forehead, Malcolm maintained that it was an accident. He was also convinced that the deputy had targeted him ahead of their confrontation, and violated several police department rules of conduct during it, never mind baiting him with vile descriptions of his mother, Allie.

While it is clear to Malcolm’s lawyer, Jabari Ford, that the deputy was not only a dedicated racist but also a borderline nutcase who believed the 2020 presidential race had been stolen, he was still the law. Even the possibility that a black teenager had killed him intentionally makes many local residents see red. White nationalists, many of them heavily armed, protest outside the courthouse whenever court is in session. Both Allie and Chase are targets of late-night harassment, via bullet.

It’s not surprising that Patterson’s description of the trial is both nuanced and compelling, given his many years of experience as a trial lawyer. Nor is his handling of the many delicate human interactions in the book, considering this is his 23rd novel, many of them bestsellers.

Patterson’s choice to set the events in the book so close to the present gives it an immediacy that is unsettling at times: The deputy was shot just last year? The trial was held this winter? Five months ago? It is also an effective way to remind us of racism’s pervasiveness and endurance. It’s been here for 400 years, it’s here now, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Cameo appearances by current players — Dorothy Turner Dark, for instance — in the noisy debate about the future of our country also make the book feel more urgent. This isn’t history; it’s happening right now, and we ignore it at our peril.

Before “Trial,” Patterson published 22 novels, the last one nine years ago. Since then he has focused on essays and columns, in which, he found, “issues relating to race, either directly or implicitly, informed” much of what he wrote: “Given that, I started thinking about using my background as a trial lawyer, political commentator, and author … to construct a narrative about characters caught in the convergence of several of our gravest issues: voter suppression, discriminatory law enforcement, the political exploitation of racial animus, the rise of white nationalism, and frequent failure of our legal system to provide fair trials in racially charged circumstances.”

At an age when most novelists no longer have the energy to tackle a complicated story that runs some 550 pages, Patterson’s decision to take on a project of this scope and complexity is noteworthy. It’s a sign of the times: To many of us, the divide in this country is beyond worrisome, and we feel helpless as it swirls around us. Patterson’s response was to tackle it head-on in the genre he knows best, fiction. Still, the perils are plentiful when a novelist builds a book around a topic, in this case, obviously, racism, and if they do so at the expense of a story that can draw in and hold the reader, they’re in trouble. It’s to Patterson’s immense credit that he decided to skate out on this thin ice, consequences be damned.

Richard North Patterson will be appearing at the Martha’s Vineyard book festival and Islanders Write.