Devil Sent the Rain by Lisa Turner sees the return of hardboiled Detective Billy Able in this dark Southern mystery about the murder of a dazzling Memphis socialite—and the scandals revealed in the wake of her death.
In the “new” South, the scab of modernity is thin. If you peel it away, you might find healthy, healing flesh beneath, but you are just as likely to reveal a raw, festering wound giving off the stench of decaying Southern aristocracy and dying white privilege.
Caroline Lee, the moneyed Memphis socialite who meets her death wearing a wedding dress of lace “made by Belgian nuns 100 years ago” is one of the city’s entitled class. Her parents run a law firm; her brother oversees the family bank. The family home is staffed by black servants and appointed with antique furniture and sterling silver handed down from generation to generation. People like Caroline are not supposed to die in muddy pastures, shot at point-blank range and left to bleed out in that heirloom of a dress.
So when Caroline does turn up dead—and pregnant to boot—it’s up to Detective Billy Able to find the person responsible, a job he takes seriously. And fortunately for the Lee family, there’s a white-trash scapegoat ready at hand.
The Ford F-150 pickup rocked along in the dark, spinning up loose gravel on the park’s access road. The old truck, loaned to him by his brother-in-law, had busted struts and seats soaked in defoliants and nicotine. The brakes were shot. Through the hole in the floorboard he could see the asphalt flying by, but he had no complaints. He was headed to work early, 4:00 am, fingernails clipped and his hair slicked back. Roscoe Hanson was lean and mean. The ladies love a clean man, especially a man with tattoos. He had his eye on a young thing working the line, the one with the big tits and soft mouth. She made sure to bump his butt when she passed on her way to the sink.
Roscoe—even his name tells us what class he inhabits—is not above pilfering money from the dead woman, but he’s not her killer. Billy, who is part of the “service class” himself, realizes that something particularly nasty is going on when he delivers the bad news to Caroline’s mother Rosalyn and her entitled snot of a brother Martin.
Both of them are more concerned with how Caroline’s death is going to affect the family’s various businesses than with the actual crime, and that rubs Billy and his partner Frankie the wrong way—especially when Rosalyn mentions that Caroline had recently broken off her engagement to Raj Sharma. In another generation, she would have referred to him as a “colored man.” Nowadays, she chooses her words more discreetly, assuming that Billy will be able to decode her meaning.
“Dr. Sharma is Indian, not even American-born,” Frankie says. “It’s hard enough to stay married to a man from your own culture. Then the babies come. People can be so cruel to racially mixed children.” Noting Billy’s reaction to her words, she hastily adds, “I know that sounds racist but …” going on to give a reason that in no way excuses her racism while attempting to explain it.
Martin Lee, Caroline’s brother, realizes that Billy might not quite understand what a delicate matter the investigation is, so he casually mentions that he’s friends with the mayor and that if necessary, he won’t hesitate to call him. That does not go over well with Billy.
Martin’s ancestors had passed down their wealth along with an outrageous sense of entitlement. Eventually, that kind of society collapses, Billy muses as he teases the unraveling threads of the fabric of the Lee family life and finds himself discovering some very nasty secrets even as he comes to grips with the ghosts of his own family’s dysfunction.
Novelist Lisa Turner, a Southerner herself, writes books in which she “coils the roots of southern identity” around her characters. In this novel, Billy is always bumping up against the unwritten rules of the world he was brought up in and the way those rules are starting to erode. When Billy finds himself in the presence of the Lee family patriarch, a man who has always embodied, for him, the specific southern brand of honor, the reader is well aware that these days, that sense of honor comes wrapped in the Confederate flag and the white sheets of the Ku Klux Klan.
In Devil Sent the Rain, the Memphis that Turner has brought to life is as fertile a ground for mystery as the land once was for growing cotton.
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Katherine Tomlinson is a former reporter who prefers making things up. She was editor of Astonishing Adventures Magazine and the publisher of Dark Valentine Magazine. She edited the charity anthology Nightfalls. Her dark fiction has appeared in Shotgun Honey, A Twist of Noir, Luna Station Quarterly, and Eaten Alive, as well as anthologies, including Weird Noir, Pulp Ink 2, Alt-Dead, Alt-Zombie, and the upcoming Grimm Futures, which she also edited. Her most recent collection of short stories is Suicide Blonde. She sees way too many movies.