It’s 1949, and in the shoreline water of a Mississippi island the body of a young woman is discovered. She has been strangled, tied with wire to blocks to weigh her down and has been in the water for a few days. Her blonde hair and the gold anklet she is wearing quickly identify her as Beulah, the eighteen year girl who turned up on the island three weeks before with her fifty year old lover Luther Eustis. A witness leads police to him, and he is arrested and tried for her murder.
All of this is revealed to you in the opening chapter, which is narrated by the court reporter in the town where the trial is to take place. The joy of this book, then, is not in detection or the chase, but in the gradual reveal of Eustis’ motives, and the strange path that seems to inevitably lead him to murder. Faith, passion and birthright all combine to bring Eustis to his young lover and his crime. This is disclosed to us over the course of the book by an array of narrators. These include the aforementioned reporter, Eustis himself, his wife, Beulah, the ‘Dummy’ witness who identifies him, and his trial lawyer. Each of these very different voices has its own perspective, knowledge of and level of intimacy with the quiet, respectable and devout Eustis, and helps build the picture of how he came to do what he did.
Shelby Foote came into my life years ago, when he appeared in Ken Burn’s documentary series about the American Civil War, and I was curious about his works of fiction. I wasn’t disappointed. His writing is evocative and dreamy without the slightest hint of showiness or fuss. He also does not shy away from the darker side of human nature and what can drive a man to do a terrible thing that is so out of character. Tom Parker’s reading of the novel is beautiful. Calm and considered, his tone and accent combine with Foote’s prose to hypnotise. The story will exert a quiet grip on you, and is not easily forgotten.