Harlem Redux

Read:  2017

Author:  Persia Walker

Published:  2002

Genre:  Mystery & Suspense, Historical Fiction

Pages:  320 (hardcover)

Selected By:  Lady Esbe

Lady Esbe’s Score:  Scoring Great Book

“Four years after dropping out of Harlem society, David McKay, a handsome young lawyer from a prominent Strivers’ Row family, returns home, devastated by the news of his sister Lilian’s suicide.  What caused his once stable, gentle sister to take her own life?  Why did she marry Jameson Sweet, giving a man she barely knew a claim to the family home?  What caused her flamboyant twin, Gem, to return to Harlem from Paris, forge new bonds, and suddenly depart again?  Most important, why did Lilian feel compelled to keep David in the dark about it all? 

“Burdened by a secret of his own, David dares to stay in Harlem just long enough to stave off the threat to his family home and answer questions about Lilian’s death.  Entering her world, he rediscovers what he left behind – a place of suffocating class strictures, seductive patrons, and aristocratic civil rights leaders.  His inquiry takes him from the wealthy salons of Renaissance Harlem to the crowded tenements of its poor.  He uncovers old loves and festering hatreds.  But the deeper he probes, the closer he comes to unleashing forces that threaten to reveal his own crippling secret – a secret that could destroy him or redeem him.”

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Lady Esbe’s Review

It has been a while since I’ve had time, much less the motivation to write an interim review.  Yes, I’m still plodding through my vast library of freebies from Kindle and this one actually merited a review.  I love a good mystery and this fit the bill.  The author set a great mystery in the midst of explaining some Black morays of the twenties in Harlem.  We are introduced to the McKays, a once destitute family who’s patriarch, Augustus, raised his family to affluence and stature in the black community of Harlem and specifically to the affluent street of Striver’s Row.  Within the family there are secrets and issues that plague any dysfunctional family.  Despite their family’s rise, the McKay’s had their problems and advantages of the café au lait elite.

A big issue that is at play in this novel is racism within and without the black community.  The McKays are a light-skinned clan, which is often seen as a desirable attribute to have within the community.  In fact, son David is so light he was able to pass as a white man in Philadelphia where he was unknown.  Post a traumatic experience of watching a man be burned alive by a mob in the south, David was forced to deny his identity or suffer the same fate while he was attempting to investigate the lynching of five members of a southern family.  David was subsequently beaten as a “white” man to teach the nosey northerner a lesson.  Coming out of his fog and depression, David found himself in Philadelphia and offered his aide to a woman who looked to be in need and thus starting his life as a white man in Philadelphia as an attorney who defended indigent blacks.  However, no good deed goes unpunished.

In finding himself, David had alienated himself from his family but for his sister Lilian.  He and Lilian had not seen each other in four years, but corresponded via letter constantly, until suddenly they weren’t.  We are brought into the story at the untimely death of his sister, Lilian.  Lilian was a refined and cultured woman who was popular among the citizens of Harlem, both affluent and the indigent.  However, because of her fair complexion, she sought to “prove” her blackness by marrying a young attorney who was also involved in the cause of social equality and justice.  While she is an intelligent woman, she is ill equipped to deal with the pitfalls of dealing with a man who only sees her as a means to an end, affluence.  David seeks to prove that her husband, Jameson Sweet, murdered his sister via her committing suicide.

To further the suspense and potential players in the demise of Lillian’s death, we are brought into the strained and difficult relationship of twins.  Gem is the wild one to Lilian’s refined, genteel behavior.  Gem has lived abroad, taken many lovers and is overtly wanton.  Even making a play for Jameson in front of Lilian.  Lilian tries to reconcile with her sister and to put her past hurts behind her, but it is likely to be for naught, as Gem is a manipulative and conniving woman set in her ways of wanting what she wants when she wants.

Ms. Walker further complicates, in a lovely way, through the relationships in the novel.  David’s parentage comes into question, when he finds out that the “maid” is not who he thought she was.  There are several unrequited love stories at play as well.  Rachel has loved David since childhood and was devastated when he went away, leaving her to deal with the fall out of their relationship.  Lilian loved her husband, until she realized what his true intentions were.  Gem also gets in the act by falling for Jameson and his love being for yet another.

Overall, Ms. Walker does an exquisite job in laying out the difficulties, the prejudices and behaviors within the black community while weaving a good mystery was appreciated.  What kept this from being a 5 cupper for me was that she drew it out a bit too long in the end.  The realization that David had been played, the ambition of Rachel and her true motivations just took a bit too long for me.  I must admit I had my suspicions throughout, but couldn’t quite work out who did what when.  However, I was pleased that I was able to deduce one plot twist fairly early on in the novel.    While I don’t particularly care for the vein of politics she discusses, it is there and a looming thing within the community to this day (maybe not as pronounced, but definitely there).  Ms. Walker provides good social commentary for the era and keeps you engaged until the very end.

Esbe read the Amazon Kindle version of this novel.

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